I thought it would be easier to care for an old dog than an old human — or maybe harder. But almost a decade after my husband and I cared for and lost three parents and an aunt, tragedy has repeated itself as farce in the form of our aging dog.
Casey, the handsome, thickly furred red dog we brought home as a puppy, is 15 — in canine years, what gerontologists would call “the old-old.” Suddenly, we’re back in the place we named Elder World, as managers of his decline.
The bulging disc in Casey’s back has outpaced the medication we’ve given him since he was 12, and he struggles to sit and lie down. His tail won’t wag; his gait stutters. His hearing is shot, and cataracts have left him nearly blind. The past six months brought “canine cognitive dysfunction,” a.k.a. doggy dementia. He gets stuck behind furniture, paces at night, has forgotten there’s a backyard and will only pee in front.
I never imagined that senior dog care would prove a weird resurrection of something I already knew. Instead of the shower chair, water bowls set atop risers, to make drinking easy; instead of the walker, a sling. A trail of absorbent puppy pads leading to the front door to catch the inevitable accidents takes the place of adult diapers. The mental changes hold echoes, too. Casey, part chow, ornery and snappish, has forgotten that he hates the dog down the street and strangers who presume to pat his head.
The newly agreeable Casey evokes my once sharply critical aunt transformed into a matron who marveled, “Look at the size of it!” in reference to a ShopRite. When Casey starts his evening shuffle, to the door, outside, back in again, his endless search for something that eludes him, I hear my father-in-law’s voice: “What day is it? Where’s my checkbook?”
As we did then, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What does he want?” Who knows? “Does he suffer?” We don’t think so. “Is he happy?” We don’t think that, either. “Does he want to die?” Our old people held fiercely to life, and to their habits of living — endless cups of weak coffee, coupon-cutting, a daily vanilla ice cream cone. In August, Casey fought his way back from a facial abscess we thought would kill him. Every single day, around sunset, his old walk time, he staggers to his feet and demands to go out.
We move through the weeks, trapped at home because we’re afraid to leave Casey alone; sleep-deprived from listening for the sound of him trying to get up in the night. We are driven to rage by the click-clicking of his nails as he turns in endless circles. In Elder World, we told each other, “If they were dogs, we could be merciful and end this.” Now it is a dog, and we can’t pull the plug. Which makes me think of the old people again, and how insistently the will to hang on demands respect. And another thing they taught me: that although caregiving feels endless, it always ends, though the empty space after doesn’t.
When Casey disappeared a few nights ago, I searched the house, then the yards with a flashlight, increasingly panicked, calling his name, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Finally, after 20 minutes, I found him hidden behind a plant, frozen in place at the very edge of our back deck. He sensed the drop before him but couldn’t figure out what to do next.
“This can’t go on,” we tell each other; it goes on. When Casey doesn’t make it outside, we wipe up the mess. We help him to his feet in the morning, feed him by hand. We walk him, coax him to the end of the block — 30 minutes for what used to take five. We watch him sleep, looking for movement to signal he’s still alive. Think “how much longer will he last?” — and “It would be better if it wasn’t too long.”
Then we carefully turn away from those thoughts and get out his dinner, because the old man will probably be hungry when he wakes.
The alleys, parks and vacant lots of this country are alive with so many stray and feral cats that we don’t even know the precise number. Thirty-two million, says one estimate; triple that, another. The felines are the offspring of pets we didn’t bother to “fix,” the animals we adopted then dumped or left behind.
In the past, we called them pests and tried — brutally, unsuccessfully — to wipe them out. Today, the accepted strategy is to catch and sterilize them, then send them back outside, where they were. “Trap-neuter-release,” as the approach is called, has been hailed by the no-kill movement, which opposes routine euthanasia by animal shelters. And it has been adopted by animal control departments in more than 400 cities and counties. (Los Angeles has its own plan in the works.)
In theory, the tactic seems like an easy solution that lets us all sleep well: We don’t want these animals, but we also don’t want their blood on our hands. In reality, and as emphasized by a recent flare-up over the practices of Orange County’s public animal shelter system, it’s not that simple.
Originally, the promise of trap-neuter-release was to reduce stray and feral populations by curbing their prolific breeding — cats are fertile by six months of age and can give birth multiple times a year. But for cat populations to fall, more than 50% of the females in a given “colony,” or living group, need to be sterilized. That’s not easy, given cats’ ability to hide — and the fact that known colonies become dumping grounds for more unwanted, often unfixed, pets. As a result, herd sterilization hasn’t ever been achieved on a mass scale.
The approach has skeptics for other reasons, too. Many scientists, birders and wildlife managers oppose trap-neuter-release programs in general, noting that free-ranging cats are destructive predators, annually killing billions of birds and mammals, while also spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.
The programs have been successful in one way, however. They have enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound, then euthanize, at a time when public shelters face immense pressure to reach a no-kill ideal, usually defined as not euthanizing any healthy or adoptable animals. An added bonus is reduced taxpayer cost: sterilizing and releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.
How well the cats themselves fare is less clear than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not self-sustaining. That means colonies under the watchful eye of caretakers willing to devote considerable time and money to their welfare may thrive. Those without human guardians may suffer from malnutrition, infection and parasites. Some of the cats get hit by cars or eaten by coyotes. Even the authors of a paper lauding trap-neuter-release programs acknowledged that “the welfare outcome for cats returned to location of origin were not tracked … [and] little research on this topic could be found.”
Some shelters run neuter-and-return programs in which individual strays that are brought in by concerned residents aren’t put up for adoption, but rather are neutered and returned to where they were initially found. In October, a lawyer representing a group of animal rescues and individuals sent Orange County Animal Care, the county’s government-run shelter network, a demand that it stop its practice of “abandoning” these cats.
According to signatory Sharon Logan, some of the more than 1,000 cats Orange County released between September 2018 and June 2019 weren’t feral, but roaming, lost or abandoned pets, or kittens still young enough to be socialized and made adoptable. Some were sick, she said, and in many cases, communities where the cats were returned weren’t told the felines were coming. There was often “no obvious presence of a feeder or caretaker.” As a result, she said, the animals suffered. Carol Barnes, another signatory to the letter, shared photos of one cat she said was released by Orange County and later found malnourished, with broken ribs, an upper respiratory infection and an injured eye crawling with maggots.
An Orange County Animal Care representative declined to comment, but a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs similar programs, has called some of the critics’ claims “misinformation and scaremongering.”
The answer? No one who’s ever loved a house cat or felt moved to feed a hungry feral (that includes me) wants to return to mass killing. And well-run trap-neuter-release programs may be an important part of dealing with our national cat problem. But increased and organized efforts to educate humans about their responsibilities to their animals are also crucial. So is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay/neuter laws and far more access to affordable services.
Maybe most of all, we need to abandon what one cat lover described to me as “magical thinking” — pretending that the only thing that matters is keeping stray cats alive; believing that any one effort holds a simple, painless solution. These fictions serve mostly to comfort those responsible for our cat problem in the first place. That is, us.
It felt like a good summer for animals. In mid-August Julián Castro became the first (and so far only) Democratic presidential candidate to release an animal welfare policy statement. In September, Michigan became the second U.S. state to announce it had reached “no kill.” (Delaware was the first.) After years of the Trumpian death machine, it was like a rush of fresh air into a suffocating, fetid room.
And yet in the real-world context of dog and cat rescue, one couldn’t help but feel a bit … underwhelmed. “No kill” was “an amazing first for our state,” said the chair and founder of the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance. It was “a different path,” offered Castro. “My hometown of San Antonio achieved no-kill status in less than a decade.”
If only it were that simple. America as a whole has been working toward a “no kill” goal for decades, reassured every few years that we’re about to arrive. We haven’t. There are reasons why—and they’re why, as a current call to action, those words are almost meaningless.
To be clear: Criticizing “no kill” isn’t calling for an end to adoption and rescue or a return to the truly terrible old days when rampant killing of shelter animals was just a fact of life. As recently as the 1970s, loose animals—both strays and pets—roamed America’s streets, and otherwise decent people thought nothing of dropping the resulting litters at local shelters to be “put to sleep.” Somewhere between 13 and 23 million cats and dogs died yearly back then, and that no one knows the exact figure is another sign of how little anyone cared: No national reporting structure even existed. Today, shelter euthanasia rates are down dramatically—as much as 90 percent —thanks to the spread of sterilization followed by increased advocacy for adoption and rescue. There are around 14,000 rescue groups of different sizes and focus in this country, and a 2017 paper published in the journal Animals confirmed what these hard-working people already knew: that for dogs, rising adoption rates had helped to bring the killing down.
More generally, this same paper added, a “cultural shift in how society and pet owners relate to dogs has produced [other] positive shelter trends.” You bet—evidence of that “cultural shift” is virtually everywhere, from steady increases in pet ownership to the $70 billion we spend on companion animal care to polls showing our belief that animals, like people, have rights. Legislation like California’s Hayden Act increased the time an impounded animal had to be kept alive in a public shelter; some cities have substituted the word “guardian” for “owner” in pet-related municipal codes, and even more have banned the pet shop sale of all cats, dogs and rabbits acquired from commercial breeders. Public outrage over animal abandonment and death during Hurricane Katrina led Congress to pass the Pets Evacuation and Transportations Standards Act, which impels rescue agencies to save both people and pets during natural disasters. In 2014, federal law reclassified animal cruelty as a Group-A felony, like homicide, arson, and assault. Veterinary professional associations have set new shelter-care guidelines that include minimum kennel size and the need to attend to animals’ “mental well-being.” Some grim municipal shelters have been remade into airy, welcoming spaces with play yards and heated floors.
Credit “no kill” advocacy for some, maybe many of these changes? Sure. Whoever first coined the term, it was brilliant—immediately graspable, a slogan, philosophy, exhortation, declaration of moral outrage, and promise, all in one. Millions of animal lovers have gathered under its umbrella. But the simplicity that makes the phrase so compelling has also made it difficult in practice.
On the most basic level, there’s no consensus on what it means. Most extreme believers say that no animals should be euthanized unless they’re terminal or irredeemably suffering, and that with enough effort, homes can be found for all the others. (Those few deemed unadoptable can be sent to “sanctuaries.”) More common are those who believe in “mostly don’t kill,” that while some animals are sick and screwed up enough to justify putting them down, an array of efforts can save the rest: increased spay/neuter campaigns, adoption promotion, fostering, rescue group alliances, transporting animals from places of oversupply, shelter management changes. Within this vision, a shelter (or city or state) reaches “no kill” when at least 90 percent of the animals it takes in come out alive.
Concrete numbers may be reassuring, but they can be slippery. In a 2018 Psychology Today piece, Hal Herzog, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Western Carolina University and long-time researcher on animal-human relations, offered his own analysis of the Animals study data. Herzog reported that (as most rescuers already knew) euthanasia averages mask huge geographic variation. Within the U.S., for example, far more animals are put down in the south than in the north; in California, euthanasia is higher inland than it is on the coast; in the Los Angeles metro area, it’s higher in shelters run by the county than the city, and higher in some city neighborhoods than others. Even as Michigan celebrated its new status, the Pet Fund Alliance chair acknowledged that “we still have a few communities struggling.”
The reasons behind these differences add a further layer of complication. Animal policy is set locally, so even within a single county separate small cities may have different laws—for how much it costs to license an intact versus sterilized animal, whether or not to impose mandatory spay and neuter laws and how rigorously to enforce them, how shelters are funded and what programs they adopt. (For example, only 32 states require dogs adopted from a public shelter to be sterilized.) Communities vary culturally in how animals are viewed and treated, how aware pet owners are of available resources, how accepting of practices like sterilization. Herzog, for instance, notes that “states with higher rates of gun ownership had more dog deaths,” maybe because “people in the South don’t like restrictions on the sex lives of their pets any more than they like zoning or gun laws.”
Then there’s the huge issue of human economics—or more specifically, the fact that truly helping needy pets requires helping their equally needy owners. The Animals study data showed something else rescuers and shelter workers already knew: States with lower average incomes kill more domestic animals than wealthier ones, and so do shelters in low-income neighborhoods. Shelters in low-income neighborhoods also have higher rates of owner surrender. Behind those figures: poverty.
In low-income areas, spay/neuter services or routine veterinary care may be unaffordable or inaccessible—in some rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods, there literally are no veterinarians. The animals of the economically challenged are far more likely than those of the affluent to be impounded by animal services (for instance when they escape a badly-fenced yard), then trapped in the system when reclamation fees and fines are beyond the family budget. (These escalating fees mirror other “poverty penalties,” such as license suspension for drivers who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets.)
Staying housed while caring for a pet can be an ongoing struggle. Women without means trying to escape domestic violence find few shelters that will take animals. (Even as research shows that abusers frequently threaten to hurt or actively harm their partners’ beloved pets as a means of control.) For homeless pet owners, sociologist Leslie Irvine observed in My Dog Always Eats First, the choice often comes down to keeping a beloved pet or being housed—traditionally, homeless shelters have not accepted animals. Similar choices face low-income families. One of the key findings in a 2015 study published in Open Journal of Animal Sciences was that pet owners with incomes below $50,000 were significantly more likely than those with money to re-home animals due to cost, particularly of medical care, and housing issues like lack of access to pet-friendly housing ability to pay housing pet deposits. In fact, other surveys show that among the top reason Americans surrender their pets are moving, cost, and a landlord who doesn’t allow pets.
The very real connection between pet ownership and rental housing issues—landlords’ use of previously unenforced “no pets” clauses to push evictions; the shortage of apartments that allow pets makes Julián Castro’s call for pet-friendly policies in federally affordable new housing construction a good start to a necessary conversation. It’s too bad he offered a plan that didn’t address existing housing. Around 4.8 million households receive federal rental assistance, and both private landlords offering Section 8 housing, and public housing authorities can and do restrict pets, whether banning them all, or just specific breeds — most typically pits, Rottweilers, and chows. Human economics also governs what animal welfare efforts can realistically be. Cutting euthanasia by finding pets new homes requires human capital—a roster of volunteers, local rescues and available foster homes — and budgetary support that may be beyond a city’s reach. Just two hours south of Castro’s No Kill San Antonio, for instance, is the city of Edinburg, in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley. Its Palm Valley Animal Shelter, was once described by Best Friends CEO Julie Castle as among those “that are so dramatically under-resourced and over-burdened that they might as well be operating in the 1970s.” A partnership between that mega-organization and the shelter has reportedly raised its save rate from 36 to (a still not great) 51 percent, and even that success had setbacks: During an effort to hold, then transport 800 puppies and small dogs out of the area, many developed distemper—which is endemic in the Valley—and had to be euthanized. Some got sick after they were in their new homes.
To tangibly help these struggling communities, Castro called for the establishment of a $40 million Local Animal Communities grant program within the USDA to “expand access” for vaccinations and spay/neuter in underserved communities, as well as support adoption programs and efforts to reduce thousands of existing feral cat colonies through the strategy of Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR). Activists I spoke to heard that figure and laughed. The year Austin, Texas, a much-celebrated “no kill” city reached its goal, the shelter budget went up more than $1 million and the next year, it requested a million more in “emergency” funds. TNR remains both logistically difficult—a big percentage of skittish felines must be caught to bring any colony’s birth rates below replacement level—and controversial. A 2013 analysis from the Smithsonian conservation biological Institute and the Fish and Wildlife service estimated that domestic cats kill around 2.4 billion birds in the Continental U.S. each year. In late August, the New York Times reported that a toxoplasmosis infection responsible for killing up to 8 percent of California sea otters had been traced to outdoor domestic cats. It also costs big bucks. According to a 2010 study prepared for Best Friends Animal Society, even supposing the use of volunteer labor and veterinarians offering a discount rate, eradicating the national feral cat population through TNR would cost $8.7 billion.
Even all the money in the world “isn’t enough,” says Lori Weise of Downtown Dog Rescue, who has been working for over 20 years in L.A.’s most challenged neighborhoods. “Money doesn’t help without a plan.”
Another unfortunate reality of the 90 percent “no kill” goal is that even when reached, it may be less real than it appears. Shelters under public and political pressure to have “good” euthanasia numbers also have the incentive to play good numbers games, whether that means adopting out sick or potentially dangerous animals to avoid having to put them down or conversely calling them “untreatable” so they can be euthanized without marring the live release rate. In June, for example, Gothamist reported that Animal Care and Control in New York City (which was supposed to have reached “no kill” five years ago) was excluding from its euthanasia rate statistics owner-surrendered dogs and cats with “problems” like mouthing on their leashes, jumping, and cowering in fear. “Transport”—sending shelter animals from one state to a (presumably better) other, also can be subverted. One “coalition partner” in L.A.’s current “no kill” effort proudly describes its contribution as moving small breed dogs from local shelters to … New York City.
Another strategy: policies that deliberately limit shelter intake. In “no kill” San Antonio, says a source long involved in that city’s rescue world, a “diversion” program allows anyone who finds a stray to keep it at home, while classifying the animal as a shelter impound. “Then, if it’s given away—to whoever— or even escapes, it can be counted as a successful live release.” San Antonio also requires residents to make appointments before surrendering animals, and its website warns that if the shelter is full “you may be asked to seek alternate arrangements.” In practice, says the source, “people turned away just abandon the animals when they leave.”
Or the statistics race leads to not looking too carefully at adopters. The growth of disreputable rescues and outright rescue scams is a constant source of anguish in the rescue world; social media warnings like “There is a Reckless Rescue that has been taking dogs from L.A. Shelters. Please BEWARE!!” appear daily. Worse are organizations that take in more animals than they can properly care for, and individuals who use the guise of rescue to mask hoarding. Yearly, thousands of dogs and cats are removed from “rescue hoarders”—Someday Acres (Tennessee), Tiggy Town Senior Dog Rescue (Arizona), Road to Home (New York), Elk Grove Animal Rescue (California) … A much-celebrated “live release” from a shelter may land a dog or cat in a fate worse than death. At the Elk Grove rescue, animal service workers found 58 dogs and sick, dehydrated puppies living in a barn “with a strong odor of urine and feces” who hadn’t been been given food or water for 24 hours, as well as “a large Pit Bull dog inside a plastic crate that was not large enough for the for the dog to turn around in, its head was crouched inside, and it was unable to extend its tail.” Road to Home was closed after whistleblowers released a video of over 100 dogs living in a dilapidated warehouse, locked 24/7 in cages filled with urine and feces.
Finally, even when adoption efforts successfully move adorable puppies and apartment-friendly small “fluffies” to new homes, legions of the less desirable—seniors, overbred pit bulls, middle-aged chihuahuas—are left behind. This past June, TV station KVUE in “no kill” Austin reported that the city’s three shelters were at “critical capacity” with nearly 800 dogs and cats, some of which had been held over 3 years. Animals were being housed in pop-up kennels placed in meeting rooms and offices because, said the Austin Animal Center’s communications manager, “we have nowhere for them to go.”
The contradictions of “no kill” are no secret within the rescue world, debated (sometimes quietly, sometimes very loudly) by rescue groups and rescuers, shelter managers, vets. In 2018, an editorial in the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association journal denounced the movement as “destructive” and called for a new model, “socially conscious sheltering” with similar animal welfare goals, but without a numerical end point. Any shelter could save 98 percent of the pets that came in, the authors noted, but only if it was to “manage to a single statistic, and not to the best interest of animals.” In August, 2019, those principles were adopted by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control.
Maybe “socially conscious” will be a popular new model, maybe not. Maybe other Democratic candidates will declare their own support for animal welfare — if they don’t, we should call them on it. But perhaps it’s time for all of us to dump slogans and platitudes in favor of addressing a complicated, nuanced issue with similarly nuanced action. That means spending as much or more effort on keeping animals from going into shelters as getting them out. Offering humane education “is a cost-effective approach that’s barely being tried,” says Aaron Fisher, founder and CEO of Atlanta Rescue Dog Café, which teaches responsible pet ownership to children as young as pre-K, many in underserved communities. “Hardly a sliver of grant money supports it. Then we wonder why kids grow up and don’t know how to care for their animals.”
It means subsidizing sterilization services and making them easily accessible and providing affordable vet access in poor and rural areas. (Encouraging vets to embrace this effort, suggests Lori Weise, means finding a way to do it that doesn’t require them to sacrifice their own income.) It means legal services that help tenants deal with pet-related housing issues, and more programs that help pet owners with problems hold onto their pets. Shelter-based “intervention” programs, like those run by Downtown Dog Rescue and Home Dog L.A. “don’t have the sexiness that adoptions do, but we can’t adopt our way out of crowded shelters as long as animals keep coming in,” says Kerry Armstrong Lowe, HDLA’s founder and executive director. By offering vet vouchers, food, dog houses, fence repair and help with reclamation fees, since 2013 the two organizations have kept more than 15,000 dogs out of two city shelters.
“No kill” was a powerful starting point for a movement toward change, but the words have become short-hand and a catchphrase that doesn’t lead us forward in the real world. The future demands more than a number.
My chow-shepherd Casey and I have walked the same streets for almost 15 years. Every morning, every night, seven days a week, rain or shine. Like most city dogs, Casey enforces this clause of the human-canine contract with meaningful looks, insistent pawing and (when all else fails) a snout-thrust to the laptop that allows no dissent.
I’d like to describe our hundreds of hours spent wandering the neighborhood as meditative, but they have often driven me nuts. Casey chooses the same route, greets whatever dogs are out, sniffs the same bushes from five angles before deigning to pee.
Still, the ritual has shifted some. Many familiar canine faces have vanished, and Casey’s painful shuffle tells me that our time together is short.
And lately, I’ve also come to realize what our walks have given me.
When I tell people about the pocket Westside neighborhood where I live, I always say I’ve never known or felt so deeply connected to a place. I realize now that’s not because my neighborhood is special. It’s because of Casey.
He is why I know every house around me — which lawns are always overgrown and which manicured, which yards have peach trees, and which cacti: walking at a dog’s pace forced me to see them. Casey is why I know every nearby family that ever had a dog, because he pulled me into the canine social orbit — of Blue and Sarah, on the next block; of big Valentine and golden Ollie and a dozen others.
The dogs in turn brought me into the lives of dozens of human neighbors. There was Frank, whose parents’ lives were ruined by the Cultural Revolution; Dan, the dogless dog-lover who drinks beer with friends outside his apartment, a giant jar of treats at his side. Some have become real friends, like Michelle, who came via Ava, a Great Dane mix and his sweet giant pack-mate Baxter. These people watch for me, ask after me, worry if I don’t show.
Fifteen years beside Casey have given me my own slice of Los Angeles. Work and politics and my daughter’s endless soccer games introduced me to a hundred neighborhoods sprawled across the basin. But I know them only from a distance, a camera’s panorama shot of mountains, the sweep of landscape framed by a car window. Walks with Casey are close-ups. I notice the increasingly neglected look of a home newly split by divorce and waiting for sale, the car whose weekly fender-bender damage suggests its driver’s dementia is worsening. In close up, the passage of time becomes concrete — the front lawn swing gives way to a soccer net; the porch steps are replaced by a wheelchair ramp.
The close-ups hold the quiet history of the streets themselves – the scrawled initials “CS 1973” in a driveway, the tiny plaque set in the sidewalk: “WPA 1940.” In our atomized, scattered world, there may be nothing else that roots one in a way so intensely, intimately local as walking the same streets, day after day, at a dog’s pace.
In L.A., 15 years is a long time. My tech-adjacent neighborhood is shifting, its 1940s bungalows giving way to large, white “modernist” boxes, its Subarus being replaced by Teslas. I feel the new world most acutely in the passing of the generation of dogs that first anchored me here. Val, Sarah and Blue are all gone. When Ollie died, his owner walked through the neighborhood crying, hiding Ollie’s rubber balls in bushes for other dogs to find. The day Ava died of cancer, I joined his owner to grieve beside his still body.
And yet, some things hold. Casey and I greet the few remaining old-timers including Albee, a white jindo, now deaf and stiff-legged with arthritis, who has always been Casey’s fiercest enemy. When we ran into him a few weeks ago, the two dogs paused to glare, their hackles raised, then both moved on. They’d still like to kill each other, but it just would be too much work.
As the new houses are finished, we meet the dogs and people who move in. There’s a young woman with a small, sweet-faced pit, a man whose bouncy long-legged mutt has the majestic name of Titan. We navigate the familiar streets, the phone pings relentlessly and headlines pull me toward the human world and its horrors, but Casey will not be rushed. Pee on this tree? No, maybe that one.
Meanwhile, I notice the cloud of purple bougainvillea that looks especially striking against a new home’s gray wall, and the spectacularly gnarled trunk of a 79-year-old pepper tree. Time must be taken, attention must be paid. It’s the gift dogs give us, and what they leave with us when they go.
The El Rancho Mobile Home Park in Compton, California, a cluster of aging trailers parked on a concrete slab was, nevertheless, an inviting place for low-wage tenants, thanks to its policies and prices. Even blue-collar workers could make the rent; kids and dogs were both welcome. Some tenants — Spanish-speaking house cleaners and baby-sitters, the elderly and disabled — had been there for decades. Although leases, written in English, specified dogs had to be under 25 pounds, the rule had never been enforced. Many households had bigger dogs — several, in fact.
So the notice that management tacked to their doors last May sparked panic: Residents had seven days to comply with the original rule or leave. The “choice” was no choice at all — turn in beloved animals at the local shelter or move to…well, nowhere. In a county with the nation’s largest gap between rent prices and average wages, the alternative to a $750 a month apartment is essentially the street.
But in early June three residents went to the monthly free animal care clinic run by Downtown Dog Rescue (DDR) in Compton. All had previously had their pets sterilized there, and they’d gotten word that this time there’d be a lawyer present. Longtime housing rights attorney Dianne Prado, sitting not far from the spaymobile, heard their stories and felt a familiar anger rising in her.
If the landlord accepted your pets for years, he can’t just say no now, she told them, adding, “This isn’t gonna happen.” Prado made a single phone call to the trailer park’s management company lawyer, Max Eggleston, and with the magic words, “I’m the attorney who represents…” the problem seemed to disappear. (Eggleston says that there was no change in policy, and that tenants have always been expected to “adhere to their leases.”) One of the tenants who’d already surrendered his dog to a county shelter reclaimed it, then phoned Prado crying, with his pet in his arms.
“A whole group of people about to be traumatized, 20-plus pets that were going to be added to the shelter population — nope,” Prado said. “Just like that, done.”
Los Angeles-area courts hear some 54,000 eviction cases each year, and no one knows how many more move “voluntarily” at the first landlord threat. Pet issues — sometimes legitimate, often not — are high on the list of why: Evoking a previously unenforced “no pet” clause is one good way for property owners to empty a building before it’s put up for sale, or to push out low-rent tenants in a gentrifying area.
Pets also hamper tenants from finding any housing at all — about half of Los Angeles’ rental units and most homeless shelters don’t allow them. The federal Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make “reasonable accommodation” for tenants with physical or mental disabilities, a requirement that includes accepting certified service or emotional support animals. But tenants can’t insist on rights if they don’t know they have them.
Enter Prado’s public interest law firm, the Housing Equality and Advocacy Resource Team (HEART), and the legal services offered by the Inner City Law Center via DDR’s Pet Resource Center on Skid Row. These parallel efforts may represent the first time no-cost attorneys have focused solely on pets as the driver of housing problems. They also mark a powerful merger of movements: the struggles for social justice and for animal welfare.
The South Los Angeles Animal Shelter, located on 60th St. near Western Ave., echoes with the crash of bottles from a next-door recycling plant and the frenzied barking of 300-plus dogs. On a recent fall day, Prado was conducting business on a folding table near the shelter’s intake office, armed with a laptop, phone and legal forms. Her first client, referred by an animal rescue group, was a Latina in her 40s who’d brought her teenage daughter and a thick file folder of papers. Their landlord had sent a “Notice to Quit” the $642-a-month apartment below Baldwin Hills that the mother had rented for decades because of a terrier named Cookie.
“But we’ve had the dog for five years!” she told Prado, adding that it had been classified an emotional support animal for her daughter, who was being treated for anxiety and depression. The girl said nothing but looked down at her hands.
“No te preocupes,” Prado ordered, then in a rush of alternately reassuring and indignant Spanish — when injustice riles her, she talks like a tape recorder set on fast — explained that she would take the case, “todo es gratis.” In the time it took her client to sign a representation agreement, she had left a message for the landlord’s lawyer, pulled out a flyer with immigration information, and pointed toward the shelter’s main office, where the terrier’s license could be renewed. (The dog was already spayed; every family getting Prado’s representation has or will have a sterilized pet.)
Two women, currently employed, appeared with a dog and a blizzard of contradictory notices about having to leave their Boyle Heights rental. Prado got to work.
It’s a more crowded and grimmer scene at the weekly Pet Resource clinic. Dozens of pet owners, over half of them homeless, arrive on foot at a dead-end street off Seventh St. and Central Ave., some bearing animals in shopping carts and bicycle baskets. Los Angeles Animal Services workers offer vouchers for free spay and neuter surgery; DDR volunteers provide bags of food and other supplies. Meanwhile, an attorney and paralegal work the lines in a low-key way. “How’re you doing? Good to see you! Any other problems you need help with today?”
Mental health and addiction issues are the norm here, and “sometimes it takes a few meetings to build trust,” says James Gilliam, the Inner City Law Center’s directing attorney. That was how he encountered a 65-year-old Latina whose love of her dog had consigned her to the sidewalk. “She’d been matched for housing in a low-income building,” Gilliam continues, “and even though she had a letter saying that she was disabled, and her dog was a support animal, she was not being allowed to move in with it. She couldn’t find a shelter that took animals either. I wrote a ‘reasonable accommodation’ letter and gave her five copies. Two weeks later, because of that legal letter, she was in the approved low-income housing.”
HEART and the Pet Resource Center legal clinic are separate entities that grew from a shared root: the vision of Lori Weise. Weise founded DDR in the late 1990s and has spent decades helping pet owners on Skid Row and in South L.A. Her work has been shaped by the understanding that a great deal of animal suffering is directly connected to the economic suffering of humans. Like most rescues, DDR saves and rehomes shelter dogs, but “for me,” says Weise, “it’s always been about the people.”
Since 2013, the organization’s “intervention program” at the South L.A. Animal Shelter has helped keep more than 7,000 animals out of the always-crowded facility by giving financial and other tangible assistance to struggling pet owners who are considering a pet surrender. The program, offering everything from money for reclamation fees to vouchers for vet care and even construction of dog-proof fences in open yards, has been widely imitated; programs based on Weise’s model exist at several Los Angeles-area shelters, as well as in other cities and states.
Over time, intervention program counselors have repeatedly seen families forced to choose between their housing and their animals’. The problem is widespread. A survey by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy found the top two reasons for surrender of both dogs and cats were “moving” and “landlord not allowing pets.” In a 2015 motion, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz noted that “since 2011, at least 22.6 percent of relinquished dogs and 18.6 percent of relinquished cats” had been turned over to city shelters because of tenancy restrictions.
The question was what to do. But also in 2015, both Weise and Prado, then a supervising staff attorney at Inner City Law, were speakers at a downtown forum on poverty and pets. Prado’s passionate commentary about how low-income tenants threatened with eviction inevitably lost because they had no legal representation was “a lightbulb moment for me,” Weise says. “I was listening to someone outside animal rescue who understood the problem.”
Prado, who’s got a 9-ish-year-old pitbull named Falcor that she rescued from the side of a freeway, felt the same. “Lori brings services together that no one else in the animal advocacy world would have thought were joined,” she says. The Pet Resource Center began the following year as a collaboration between Weise, the L.A. Animal Services Department and Inner City Law. In 2018, Prado left to start her own practice; her current clients come through shelter intervention counselors, rescue groups and community pet care clinics.
One strength of this strategy, its ability to organize without anyone noticing, comes from meeting clients “where they are,” as Weise would put it, and in settings that have nothing to do with their legal issues.
“When someone is facing or experiencing homelessness, people try to home in on one issue,” says Tai Glenn, chief counsel and director of legal services at Inner City. “But part of what we’re seeing is that there has to be a more holistic approach. This is a place where that can happen.”
Prado notes that many of her clients are not only dealing with eviction threats but problems like cockroach and rat infestations. “Without the pets, there are many people I’ve helped who’d never even have spoken to me,” she says. “No one wants to talk to a lawyer!”
Another strength is the strategy’s logic. Humans evicted because of animals face predictable financial and emotional consequences, including job loss, depression, poverty. Eleven percent of Los Angeles County’s unsheltered homeless directly cite eviction or foreclosure as responsible for putting them on the street. Animals made homeless when their people lose housing face life in a shelter cage. Keeping dogs out of shelters and keeping people off the street are part of the same fight.
“Look,” says Larry Gross, longtime executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival and current president of Los Angeles’ Board of Animal Services Commission, “for L.A. to be a real no-kill city…you have to get the animals into homes, and when 64 percent of the population are renters, that means they have to be accepted in apartments. In addressing homelessness, there needs to be an emphasis on keeping people in the housing they have, because we’re never going to reduce the numbers unless we turn off the faucet.”
In August, the city of Los Angeles City Council Housing Committee recommended that the city explore a housing “right to counsel” ordinance that would guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants facing eviction. For tenants, that would be a game changer. Meanwhile, in less than two years, the various members of the Pet Resource Center legal team have successfully fought 79 pre-eviction notices, defended clients in eviction court a dozen times and kept 113 animals at home and out of shelters.
Between June 2018, when Prado opened HEART, and October, she says, she helped some 100 families, including defending 10 evictions in court; the rest of her cases didn’t even get that far. “Especially when a client is low-wage or Spanish-speaking, a landlord’s three-day notice is just a push to see if someone will push back,” she says. “The most important thing I do is preventing a threatened eviction from ever getting to court.”
Behind the numbers are faces human, canine: The man who’d gotten a 24-hour notice to get rid of his beloved small dog, Champagne. The single mother with a dog and three kids, one disabled. The family of five and dog terrified of losing a rent-controlled Wilmington apartment — who later returned to offer Prado flowers and a thank-you note. And the Baldwin Hills-area mother and daughter and their dog, Cookie; Prado’s emailed response to their landlord’s attorney went unanswered, her client’s next rent check was cashed, and the problem just went away.
On April 2, Doobi, a homeless man’s little brown dog, took off from the tent they shared in a West Hollywood alley. As soon as her owner realized that she was gone, he grabbed his phone to post a blizzard of “Lost Dog” notices online.
Someone found the dog nearby, and up went a photo on the local Nextdoor. A neighbor responded with the information that a homeless man was looking for the animal, and that the finder should take it to the local shelter. That’s long been basic protocol for anyone who finds a stray, and the Los Angeles Municipal Code requires that anyone who picks up a stray notify the Department of Animal Services.
But then another Nextdoor poster chimed in. A homeless man? She’d take the dog herself. Within a day, it was put on a transport bound for a rescue in New York and theoretically “a better life.” Furious local activists tracked the animal to the East Coast and raised a stink, and a week of drama followed — emotional cross-country texts and Facebook rants; the dog’s owner filed a stolen-property police report.
Another over-the-top pet world story? Yes and no. Those in the rescue movement will tell you they regularly get calls from people looking to give them found animals rather than taking them to a shelter. It’s a growing trend — and a really bad idea.
Why decide to “rescue” a dog or cat that’s not yours? Sometimes because we’re too ready to see animals as the victims of bad humans. That skinny, dirty dog roaming the street surely was “dumped” there; its fear suggests that “it was abused.” No collar, tags or microchip? Living in a tent? Not even sterilized? Obviously, it had a terrible owner! Why help send it back?
There’s also an assumption that any shelter admission equals sure death. When someone on my own Nextdoor site recently posted that she’d found a dog without identifying tags, a neighbor immediately replied, “Please, don’t take this or any dog to a shelter … it will absolutely be put down.”
But even the dogs of “good” owners — who can include the homeless — sometimes get spooked and run or escape through doors mistakenly left open. The website Petfinder, one of the nation’s major adoption clearinghouses, says that 1 in 3 pets gets lost at some point in its life. Collars come off. The majority of all pet owners (sadly) don’t implant and register microchips. And after a few days on the street, even the most well-loved pet will act skittish and look like hell.
In California, the shelter doesn’t mean instant death and hasn’t for a long time. The Hayden Act, passed in 1999 requires public shelters to hold stray animals for at least four business days. In Los Angeles, which has committed to achieving “no kill” status, animals are often kept far longer than the required number of days. Some dogs have lived at the Chesterfield Square shelter in South L.A., one of the city’s busiest, for nearly a year (which is another issue and story). And leaving a found animal at the shelter doesn’t have to mean walking away from it. Any finder can put a “first right to adopt” hold on a stray animal; if an owner doesn’t materialize, the finder can claim it. Any finder can reach out to a rescue organization and make their case for taking the dog from the shelter.
In fact, many reputable rescue groups don’t take animals that aren’t in the shelter system. “Even if there isn’t a microchip, it’s possible someone’s looking for it,” the head of one rescue, with decades in the business, told me. “You have to give owners a chance.” There may be a lot of 21st century ways to hunt online, but when a pet goes missing, the first place most owners look is the local shelter.
Doobi’s saga had a happy ending. The New York rescue group, whose president said she hadn’t known the full story, shipped her home. But the episode was costly in cash, time and grief (especially for the dog, which traveled 6,000 miles). Contrast her story with that of Nala, a 20-pound, honey-colored pooch, who went missing in West L.A. last September.
Nala’s owner, Maggie Davis, told me that she personally posted 800 “lost dog” signs, put notices on every website she could find, and for months responded to every reported sighting and lead. None went anywhere. Then in February, someone from Los Angeles Animal Services called to say that her contact information had turned up on a stray dog’s microchip. Nala was in the Valley, 25 miles away. Davis never learned how the dog got so far, but it was clear how and why she made it home: Someone found her and turned her in to the shelter.
Staff at Frontier Veterinary Clinic in Cheyenne, Wyoming, sensed that something was wrong as soon as they met the woman driving the white pickup with California plates. It was a cool May day in 2014, and she wore a down jacket over her pale blue tracksuit. Kimi Peck had called earlier, asking to get rabies shots for 20 dogs—a strange request in itself—but when she opened the jury-rigged plywood door of the camping trailer she was pulling, there were close to 60 animals inside: Chihuahuas, terrier and border collie mixes, pit bulls, an Australian shepherd, a saluki, and a shaggy Great Pyrenees. Some ran loose; others were in rows of stacked animal crates. The trailer was wet with urine. It stank.
She was part of a rescue operation, Peck explained, and en route to a sanctuary in Utah. The story made no sense. Peck looked worn and wan; her hands were twisted with arthritis. What rescue would send someone like this to drive a load of unvaccinated dogs through the harsh emptiness of the West?
A clinic employee called animal control, which, it turned out, had gotten a call about the driver and her cargo earlier in the week, when they’d been parked at a nearby Walmart. In fact, the driver’s name was all over the Internet, with claims from people in California that she was an animal hoarder. Officers had inspected the trailer and reported the dogs to be well fed and not in distress. The Frontier Veterinary staff disagreed. The animals were dirty and too thin; several had serious health issues, like eye problems and hair loss. When officers arrived, they confiscated all but four (the maximum local law allowed as pets).
Afterward Peck, the former head of Burbank-based Chihuahua Rescue, towed her trailer south to rural Weld County, Colorado, where she’d previously camped behind a mobile home off I-25. As she slept the next morning, two neighbors who’d read about her online found the saluki and shepherd running loose and took them to Boulder’s Humane Society. (Peck later said that the women had broken into her trailer and stolen the dogs.) Humane Society staff pronounced the saluki emaciated, and two days later, on May 5, a sheriff’s deputy arrested Peck on a charge of animal cruelty.
News of the bust, covered by media in both Colorado and Wyoming, quickly traveled to the Southern California animal rescue networks. For a handful of women who had once worked with and for Peck and devoted considerable effort to having her declared a menace, it was a moment of triumph. Other activists just felt a grinding sadness: Please, not again.
While the rescue movement has helped alter the fates of countless unwanted pets, it has also given birth to a perversion of itself: the rescue hoarder, who “saves” animals only to hold them forever, often in horrific conditions. Dozens of cases, involving thousands of suffering animals, are exposed yearly. Randall Lockwood, the Washington, D.C.-based senior vice president of forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects for the ASPCA, says that as many as 25 percent of the nation’s large-scale animal hoarding cases involve individuals and groups that self-identify as rescue efforts.
For almost two decades members of the animal welfare community in L.A. have called Kimi Peck a rescue hoarder, an accusation that enrages her. “A hoarder!” she hissed when I raised the subject one afternoon, four months after her arrest. We were having breakfast in a small café in Boulder, Colorado (she’s remained in the state while awaiting trial). “A psychologically disturbed person, a terrible-looking person! You could not be sitting here talking to a hoarder. They’re not capable of relating to another human being.”
Peck came to meet me, driving the white truck. Nearly 65, she was dressed in the style of a young woman—long blond hair and pink lipstick, leggings, Uggs. She had been suspicious when I first contacted her by e-mail, responding that people lied about her and asking how she could be sure I was who I claimed to be. Then, writing “I had a different feeling about you,” she agreed to talk to me in person. Peck had read my work online, learned that I drank strong coffee, and brought me a pound of organic dark roast. We spoke for more than four hours; she asked only that I tell the truth.
The truth about Peck, though, isn’t a question of “Is she or isn’t she?” Her alleged offenses have been far less gruesome than those committed by others who’ve been exposed as rescue hoarders—at Spindletop “sanctuary” near Houston, which was busted in 2012, 38 dogs suffocated in an unventilated room—but the accusations have been constant, consistent, and come from people in five counties in three states. Her rebuttal is a litany of conspiracy and persecution.
Peck’s sad, disturbing saga is both specific and archetypal. Most rescue hoarders are female, intelligent, articulate, driven, media wise, good at accumulating animals, litigious—and excruciatingly hard to stop. In large part that’s because we all enable them. To understand how a self-proclaimed “savior” of animals becomes the prime agent of their misery is to explore the intersection where personal pathology meets the public’s blind faith that there’s an easy, happy ending for our society’s endless stream of discarded, sick, stray, overbred, takes-up-too-much time, shouldn’t-have-been-born dogs and cats. Everything will be OK, we tell ourselves, as long as they get out of the shelter alive.
When you witness a dog being rescued from the pound, it’s easy to appreciate the difficult, quixotic nature of the work. At 10 a.m. last April, I followed Jessica Landesman, the founder and president of What’s Up Dog! L.A., through the West Valley Animal Shelter, where she’d gone to “pull” an elderly Pekingese. “That dog is too old to live here,” she said. Two weeks later I was in South Los Angeles with Carole Pearson, the founder of the group Dawg Squad, who was after a neglected chow mix: “I saw a picture of her, and I just liked her face.”
Both women had been up since dawn. Rescuers’ days typically start early, with a flood of photos and e-mails from others desperate to place some endangered creature.
THIS SWEET GIRL NEEDS A HOME, NOW!
PLEASE SHARE! TEXAS DOG ON DEATH ROW!
FW: FW: FW: HIS TIME IS UP! SAVE THIS BABY!
The worst of the e-mails threaten: “If this dog dies, it’s on you.” Landesman and Pearson had found out about the dogs they intended to save from a friendly member of the shelter staff or a volunteer who knew the type of animal that interested them. (Most rescues have a specialty—bottle-feeding kittens, senior dogs, specific breeds.) They had learned to walk through the rows of metal cages, avoiding all the other pleading eyes. A rescuer can’t visit a shelter just to see what’s there, says Pearson. “It’s like going into Costco without a list.”
Each took legal ownership of her chosen dog quickly: All that was required was a bit of paperwork and cash. Registered nonprofits, like their groups, get a break on the adoption price at public shelters, and if an animal is considered at high risk for euthanasia and a group is one of the city’s “New Hope Partners,” it’s just $5.50. A vet checkup would come next, then a visit to the groomer. Both women post photos of available dogs online on their own Web sites and on Petfinder.com, which receives more than half a million visits a day. Pearson has a weekly meet-and-greet at a Ladera Heights pet store. Neither pulls a dog without having somewhere to house it before it’s adopted, or funds to cover care, although reality often messes with planning. The day I followed Landesman, she took an additional dog—a young Chihuahua whose leg had been amputated—after a staffer whispered that the shelter didn’t have the medical facilities for good follow-up. Pearson’s vet discovered a gaping wound on the chow’s chest; it needed immediate surgery. Still, these two animals would live and, with luck, find their “forever home.”
That wouldn’t have been the case a few generations ago, when a stray or unwanted animal’s only future was death. In the 1970s, some 20 million dogs and cats were being euthanized each year in the United States, 110,000 in the City of Los Angeles. With the spread of pet sterilization the numbers came way down, but as late as the mid-1980s, an animal brought into a shelter was likely to die there. The city’s annual death toll stood at 60,000. In 1989, Rich Avanzino, president of the San Francisco SPCA, implemented a radical change, a city policy that came to be called No Kill, which declared that no healthy animal should die because it doesn’t have a home. No Kill is now the dominant national paradigm, with about 70 percent of people responding to a 2011 AP-Petside.com poll saying that only terminally ill or dangerous animals should be put down. Municipal shelters can’t hold large numbers of animals for years on end; rescue is the response.
The movement almost resists definition. It’s decentralized, unregulated—anybody can join in—and exists as a loose collection of disparate groups and individuals, most of them women. Some handle seven animals; others, hundreds. Efforts are regional, national, well funded, broke. A rescuer may keep animals in her own living room or yard, board them in kennels, find foster homes, open a “sanctuary” for those too damaged to ever join a family, or arrange transport to another part of the country. Some help strays, but most pull from crowded public shelters—which, under pressure to reduce their euthanasia rates, are glad to help.
Anyone who’s tried to adopt from a rescue group knows how exasperating the experience can be, with volunteers visiting prospective homes to ask where the animal will sleep and who gets custody in case of divorce. For rescuers the stakes of each adoption are high. Hours of unpaid labor (and love) go into every animal, and placements fail. About 30 percent of shelter animals were turned in by their owners in the United States; 20 percent of those surrendered animals were adopted from the shelter to begin with. The City of L.A.’s No Kill effort is three years old, but we still euthanize 25 percent of shelter animals. In facilities run by L.A. County, the figure is twice as high.
Rescue’s central fact is failure: Choosing to save one animal means leaving another behind. “I had a volunteer tell me ‘it’s like Sophie’s choice,’ ” says Lori Weise, the founder of Downtown Dog Rescue. “But you have to accept that you can’t save them all, or you’ll go crazy.” The flip side of the failure is a high as addictive as any drug. To be known as a rescuer is to receive constant praise: “You’re a saint for what you do! You’re an angel!” The act of rescuing is one of awesome power. For each animal saved, it’s the rescuer who stood between life and death. It takes being strong and self-aware, with good boundaries, other interests, and a network of sane friends, to avoid succumbing to the despair or getting drunk on the power.
That’s where the trouble can start.
Kimi Peck tells her story as one of heroic struggle. She’s the woman who fought the system, who gave up everything for her animals, only to be persecuted by fellow rescuers. “They never liked me,” she says. “I’m sorry to say, but people were jealous. Most rescuers do not come from a privileged background. They end up in rescue because there’s nothing else for them.”
By contrast, Peck says, “I’ve had an extraordinarily exciting life.” The family history she offers is cinematic, grand. She leans forward eagerly as she talks. Peck grew up Kimi Moore in a hillside Bel-Air home, the granddaughter of a celebrated silent-film writer; she owned horses, went to private schools, came out as a debutante. Her parents adored her, and her best friends, she says, “were always celebrities’ kids.” If bad things happened, she triumphed. When she was 16, her 26-year-old boyfriend slammed his sports car into a telephone pole as they raced through Brentwood, and she broke her neck; though hospital caregivers predicted she’d never walk again, she proved them wrong. At 17 she was impregnated by a high school classmate, but her parents and the boy’s parents shared custody of the baby, who, she says, “grew up to be a fantastic guy.” After her mother confessed that Kimi wasn’t her adored father’s biological child but the product of an affair, she reports taking the news calmly: “I said, ‘Mom, he is my father. Our spirits were meant to be together.’ ”
Kimi majored in film at USC; slender, pretty, and popular with men, she was 21 when she wed Hollywood legend Gregory Peck’s 25-year-old son, Stephen, in a ceremony that made the papers nationwide. The marriage was over in seven years. She wed her divorce lawyer, but that didn’t last, either. A number of romantic relationships followed before she married the handsome older key grip she calls her soul mate, although she admits the two actually lived together only a short time.
Though some portions of Peck’s autobiography check out, others don’t. A friend who’s been close to Peck since college says her son wasn’t part of her life: “She never told me she was a mother. When we met, she said she was a virgin. She never saw that child.” Nor does Peck mention that one of her affairs led to another sad foray into motherhood. Her second son, like the first, vanished from her life, to be raised by others.
Before Peck was 30, she sold the original script that became the 1980 Tatum O’Neal and Matt Dillon film Little Darlings, and she says that afterward she sold a dozen more, which enabled her to buy a small ranch in the Valley, a Jaguar, and a “stable of Andalusian stallions.” None of these other screenplays was produced, and she quit Hollywood. “I couldn’t stand the awful people anymore,” she says. Later, low on funds, Peck wrote and directed four porn features with titles like The Hunchback of Nasty Dames and Outlaw Sluts.
If men and movies came and went, animals were a constant. In college Peck rescued and found homes for a series of pound dogs, and she carried her own Chihuahua everywhere in her purse. For several years she used her screenwriting money to fund adoptions of broken-down racehorses and discarded family ponies that had been destined for slaughter, work she apparently did responsibly and well.
Then in February 1994, when she lived in a Burbank home near the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, Peck adopted a second Chihuahua—one of the many animals left homeless by the Northridge quake—from the West Valley shelter. She says she doesn’t know how it happened, but her name and unlisted phone number were later included on a list of breed rescuers. Within days strangers were leaving unwanted Chihuahuas on her doorstep.
It was a pivotal time, with the Internet enabling nascent rescue groups to advertise animals online. Taco Bell introduced a Chihuahua mascot, starting a craze for the little dogs, which were then abandoned at shelters in droves when they proved noisy and difficult to housebreak. Peck says she didn’t define herself as a rescuer: “I was Kimi Peck, successful screenwriter, and somebody dumped Chihuahuas on me, but they’re adorable, they’re worming their way into my heart, and I will get them great homes.”
Most people trying to save animals know their own limits; Peck never accepted them. “I had a lot of money,” she says, “so I didn’t have to. How about that?” Soon she had problems. In 1997, the City of Burbank cited her for operating an illegal kennel. Separated by then from her third husband, she sold her home and with a boyfriend moved to Sunland, then Agua Dulce. The landlady there evicted her, later saying that Peck had kept more than a hundred dogs confined to crates in one room, including an intact male “covered in urine bed sores [with] nails so long…they were curling.” Peck relocated back to Burbank, where she soon drew another illegal kennel citation.
In 2000, she made a new friend, Susan Marlowe, a Beverly Hills accountant who, Peck says, suggested she register Chihuahua Rescue as an IRS-approved nonprofit. Marlowe was married to Michael Goland, a politically connected businessman who’d been found guilty years earlier in a case involving campaign finance violations. Peck says that Goland gave her the down payment to buy a modest two-bedroom in Burbank (the deed was in his name); later she rented an adjoining warehouse to serve as a kennel. No Kill was by now a passionate national effort of conferences and declarations. Eighteen animal welfare leaders from across the country met in Pacific Grove, California, to formulate the Asilomar Accords, a set of protocols aimed at eliminating euthanasia and later signed by hundreds of organizations.
Chihuahua Rescue, with its defiant motto, “Never Kill,” attracted the support of minor celebrities and brought in donations of $70,000 to $100,000 a year. In 2003, Peck became a hero by winning a court fight that forced the L.A. County Department of Animal Care and Control to turn over more than a hundred near-feral Chihuahuas that had been confiscated from the squalid home of an unlicensed breeder. Animal Planet devoted an episode of the series Adoption Tails to the drama, filming the dogs’ exodus from the Baldwin Park shelter after “one woman rallie[d] to set them free.” People magazine ran a story about Peck, calling her “Dog’s Best Friend,” and the rescue’s own Web site went further: “A Chihuahua in need or injured is blessed to be delivered to Kimi…She is an inspiration to us all.”
“Other rescues picked the cute dogs,” Peck told me. “We would fight to save everybody. My favorites were the biters, because you know they’ve been beaten and tortured, and they don’t trust anybody. You have to tell them that there are good people in the world…I did the training myself. I can’t explain what I do. It’s a feeling. A communication with them. You can trust me, dog—if you just come to me and trust me, I will give you life.”
Peck’s triumph with the near-feral Chihuahuas brought a crowd of eager volunteers to her operation, but they were stunned by what they discovered. There were dogs—including larger breeds like boxers, German shepherds, and salukis—everywhere, in Peck’s home as well as in the warehouse. Animals spent their days in closed rooms, crates, or crowded dog runs. Medical treatment was administered unevenly, with thousands spent on one animal, nothing on many others. Daily care was spottier still. Crates were stashed in out-of-the-way places, and animals might be ignored for days. With rows stacked three and four high, waste from dogs on top ran over those below. Signed statements from eight men and women who worked at or with Chihuahua Rescue also said “the filth was constant” and described infestations of fleas and ticks as well as intestinal parasites. One volunteer described a dog with a broken leg whose brace was left on so long, the leg “eventually required amputation, after which the dog was confined to a crate.”
Peck denies there were such problems at the rescue. “I never said we were the Ritz. Though my kennel was beautiful,” she maintains. Any shortcomings were the fault of a changing roster of employees, most of whom lived at a nearby halfway house. “Susan hired them all,” Peck recalls, referring to her CPA friend (through her attorney, Marlowe denies this). “They were all very defective people,” she adds.
The point of pulling shelter animals is to find them new homes, but Peck’s volunteers saw little effort being made to do that. On adoption days, says Ida Noack, a neighbor who’d acquired a Chihuahua Rescue dog and then did volunteer work at the rescue, only 10 to 20 dogs in their crates would be lined up on the driveway while hundreds more languished inside, unseen. Would-be adopters complained that applications were lost and that when Peck scheduled visits to check their homes for suitability, she wouldn’t show.
“At first I thought she was just disorganized,” says Noack. “I tried to increase the adoption rate, but Kimi would say, ‘No, that one has a heart condition.’ ‘You can’t hold that one because it will get hurt.’ There was always a reason a dog couldn’t go.”
Peck certainly did place some animals; whether the figure is close to 5,000—a claim she has made for years—is impossible to say. But consistently more arrived at the shelter than left. Dogs came from the pound and from other organizations wanting to send their Chihuahuas to a “specialist.” Former volunteers assert that Peck purchased dogs, too, from Craigslist sellers, even backyard breeders, and allowed her own unfixed animals to reproduce. (Peck flatly denies this.) Joan Rudd, who began working at the rescue in 2004, recalls seeing litters of puppies with weirdly splayed feet. “I found out from a story on puppy mills that that’s what happens to dogs born and kept in crates with wire bottoms—their toes end up stretched open to keep balance.”
Attempts to approach Peck went badly. “Why don’t you just shut your fucking probably drunk mouth?” Peck wrote to a volunteer who sent an e-mail complaining about the dogs getting inadequate care. “…Continue this sick shit and I will get a restraining order.”
Before long, says Noack, “I realized I was dealing with something I couldn’t control.” She and other volunteers turned to the Internet, where they found a name for what they saw.
Until the late 1990s, no one talked much about the practice of “collecting” animals, as it was then called, except to joke about the local cat lady. Gary Patronek, former director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, is a veterinarian who’d seen collectors’ homes crowded with starving, excrement-caked dogs and cats. He coined the harsher term “animal hoarding” to describe the behavior. Patronek and a loosely connected, interdisciplinary group of researchers formed the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, or HARC, to study a phenomenon they felt had been ignored by medical, mental health, and public care professionals.
Consortium members produced a variety of studies that mapped some of the “what” of animal hoarders, if not the “why.” Along with mostly being women, they tended to focus on dogs or cats, which they kept in large numbers while failing to provide even minimal care. Some hoarders were predatory and selfish; others, well intentioned but overwhelmed. For the rescue hoarder, a once-benevolent mission had become a compulsion. All somehow failed to see either the suffering they caused or the filth in which the animals (and frequently the hoarders themselves) lived. Even corpses would go unacknowledged. And all were compelled so powerfully that without treatment, recidivism was virtually 100 percent.
“What drives hoarders remains a bit of a mystery,” says Patronek, now an adjunct assistant professor at Tufts’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. For a time researchers believed hoarding was related to obsessive-compulsive disorder or was a variant of addiction; today the theory is that it may be a product of past trauma. With hoarders, “we oftentimes see histories of terrible trauma, chaotic childhoods, inconsistent parenting, sometimes abuse,” says Patronek. “In a trauma-based model you’ll see difficulties with attachment, delusional behavior, efforts at self-repair.” In other words, animals fix a broken self—they offer a relationship that hoarders can’t get from people. Animals, unlike lovers or children, never demand, never say no, never leave. “They’re mine and they need me,” reads the hoarding narrative. “Without me, they will die.”
True rescue isn’t anything like hoarding. But as No Kill and rescue spread, they offered an avenue for it, a way to disguise the practice as something acceptable. Pressured shelters weren’t inclined to ask who was taking the animals they were desperate to avoid euthanizing. A public focused only on the act of saving didn’t ask questions, either. As the rescue movement expanded still further, it took in legions of part-timers and freelancers—also mostly women—who combed online listings for at-risk animals, then posted photos and pleas for financial “pledges” to pull them. What would happen afterward was rarely well thought out, and into the gap between good intention and the real capacity to provide care came serial tragedy.
During the years Peck operated Chihuahua Rescue, former Beverly Hills mayor and self-declared animal rescuer Charlotte Spadaro was forced to give up the 135 dogs and 30 cats she kept in her urine- and feces-soaked Rialto home. One hundred fifty dogs lived in squalor in the Riverside County trailers of nurse Sylvia Gyimesi’s Best Buddies Rescue. More than 100 hungry dogs and puppies inhabited feces-strewn kennels and abandoned RVs at lawyer Diane Carey’s South Central Stray Rescue. Alexia Tiraki-Kyrklund’s Noah’s Ark shelter in Long Beach held 300 filthy dogs and cats in a sweltering warehouse, with corpses in a freezer. Nationally some two dozen animal-hoarding situations have come to light in the last 12 months alone.
For several years Chihuahua Rescue volunteers sent repeated complaints to the City of Burbank. It’s not clear why nothing worked. But except in Illinois and Hawaii, there’s no actual law against hoarding, and not every district attorney will pursue charges of animal cruelty since hoarding usually involves long-term neglect, rather than deliberate acts of hostility. Filing a cruelty charge can also mean that hundreds of animals must be impounded, treated, and held as evidence for months until trial, sometimes running up vet bills “into hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Patronek. Worse, the shelters may be forced to put down some of the animals they already have to make space for the influx.
Peck’s volunteers contacted local rescues, which seemed reluctant to criticize anyone working toward No Kill. “I’d be admonished by other rescuers for talking about Kimi,” says Jeanne Develle, who worked for Chihuahua Rescue in the early 2000s. “ ‘You could ruin someone’s ability to help animals.’ ”
“When someone puts ‘No Kill’ before their name, people think the animal will be living in Disneyland the rest of its life,” says Noack. “The sense was, ‘At least the dogs are safe. It’s better than being euthanized.’ ”
Eventually, however, local papers began tracking the story, and Burbank inspectors issued Peck a series of citations for inadequate sanitary conditions, space, drainage, and record keeping. The charges put her on Los Angeles Animal Services’ Do Not Adopt list. In mid-2005, she agreed to relocate in order to have them dropped. “I’m retiring,” she told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “I’m opening a sanctuary for dogs in retirement. Maybe in Northern California or Arizona.”
Instead Peck relocated all the dogs to a two-story house in Tehachapi that she says was purchased with Chihuahua Rescue funds. The home, on 22 acres, was in a canyon, so sound and odors traveled. Soon Peck faced a new round of protests from neighbors, who spent four years futilely asking county government to do something about her, complaining about dogs fighting and yelping in pain as well as the smell of excrement and dead animals.
The legal system moved slowly, but Peck invariably responded to critics with a scorched-earth policy. In 1997, when her Burbank neighbors had complained to the city about her, she sued them, and relations grew so frightening that today they’ll say only “she’s a monster.” A former Tehachapi neighbor also declined to talk to me, saying of their interactions, “It was a very scary time.” Some Chihuahua Rescue volunteers report that they quit after being cursed at and told things like they’d “die from cancer because the anger will eat you up inside” or were threatened with lawsuits. Peck did file, then drop, a number of suits, including one declaring that the volunteers who’d gone to the authorities had defamed her. She and a former friend who worked at Chihuahua Rescue filed restraining orders against each other. “Hey, you stupid little bitch, I hear you’ve been saying I don’t give my dogs medical attention,” began the message she left on one former worker’s phone. “You can fuck yourself…You want to kill my dogs? I’ll kill you.”
Peck’s attacks were frightening but also bred opponents as obsessed as she was. One created a Web site called Hoarding Chihuahuas, which ran graphic pictures of the crowded cages in the Burbank kennel, accompanied by a list of Peck’s many citations. At one point an L.A. resident named Julie Feiner sued Peck for fraud and won a $28,000 judgment. When a Chihuahua belonging to Feiner’s mother died soon after giving birth, Peck promised to provide them with a lactating mother on a temporary basis. Later she refused to return them, saying that they’d been adopted and that Feiner didn’t deserve them. (Peck says she lost the suit only because she couldn’t get to court the day the case was heard.) Feiner didn’t get her dogs back for five years; they were among those confiscated in Cheyenne. Furious, she forged an alliance with some of the Burbank volunteers and Tehachapi neighbors, then produced a seven-minute documentary, Kimi Peck’s Reign of Terror, which she posted on YouTube.
By 2009, Kern County had declared Peck a public nuisance and her home was in foreclosure. She moved with 200 dogs to a nearby home owned by Susan Marlowe but was evicted when Marlowe faced code violation fines for having too many dogs on her property. When she was on the verge of being homeless, Animal Planet returned to film Peck for a show about people whose lives had been upended by their involvement with animals. In Dangerously Devoted she brandishes a pink rifle, complains she’s the object of a “witch-hunt,” and reports being on food stamps despite having had a successful career as a screenwriter and husbands who were all multimillionaires. Shortly afterward, for the first time, she gave up and asked for help. In the summer of 2010, the Humane Society of the United States took custody of about 180 of her animals in an operation so large, it required the use of the Kern County Fairgrounds. They were transferred to the Sacramento SPCA for adoption; the organization’s president and CEO told me that most were neither healthy nor neutered or spayed.
Peck had told the Animal Planet crew that she was working on a book and screenplay deal: “I will never, ever get back into animal rescue again—it’s full of dysfunctional people.” But when she left Tehachapi, it was for Phelan, in San Bernardino County, where the old cycle of new friends, dog accumulation, and bitter falling-outs repeated itself. Her college friend says he offered her a room in his home, but only without the dogs. She declined and set off for Colorado, her trailer of animals in tow. By now anguished debates over how to stop rescue hoarders and eliminate bad rescue filled animal welfare blogs, and attempts at vigilante justice sprawled through Web sites like Petabuse.com and Facebook pages such as “The Good, the Bad, the Unforgivable of Animal Rescue.” From Los Angeles a new page went up: “Where on Earth is Animal Hoarder Kimi Peck?” There was nowhere to hide.
The court date of Kimi Peck’s trial has been postponed several times; as of May, it was scheduled for July. In Boulder she told me emphatically that she’s done nothing wrong, that all of her troubles have been caused by those working against her: There was the leadership of L.A. County Animal Control, which resented her for saving the near-feral Chihuahuas, and corrupt officials in Burbank and Kern County. Peck sometimes blames Madonna because of an InTouch magazine report that dogs “abandoned” by the singer had been saved by Chihuahua Rescue. More recently she’s added to the list the Weld County Animal Control Unit, along with her ex-accountant and ex-friend Susan Marlowe and Marlowe’s now-former husband, about whom Peck’s accusations frequently revolve. Not only did he threaten to “destroy” her, she claimed, but he also “planted and paid” the volunteers who turned against her. (Goland couldn’t be reached for comment.)
She ate half her breakfast and asked for a doggy bag. “I’ve been through hell,” she told me. “Would I do it over again? I would for the animals, but believe me, I paid a huge price. I’m ruined! I’m broken! They killed my dogs in Cheyenne! They adopted them out to unscreened homes! When I try to sleep at night, I see their faces. It’s so painful. I just say, ‘God, take me! I’m done!’ ” She started to cry. “Either let the truth come out or take me! I can’t do it anymore!”
She paused at that, then took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. “Or…I’m not done. Or…I will hang in there for one more.”
Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images
Are We Loving Shelter Dogs to Death?
No-kill policies can be helpful, but without assistance for struggling families, they may be making things worse for America’s pets.
LOS ANGELES – On the night of Aug. 6, someone tossed a 5-year-old black pit bull from a car onto a South Los Angeles street corner, where she lay unable to move. A nearby resident found her and called Ghetto Rescue Foundation, a nonprofit active in the city’s low-income communities, and a volunteer took the animal to an emergency vet. The dog was badly dehydrated and had injuries that a veterinary technician said indicated sexual abuse. Despite treatment, she died a few hours later.
While examining her, the veterinarian found a microchip lodged beneath the dog’s skin, which identified her as Valerie. She had been adopted two weeks earlier from a public shelter during a cut-price “clear the shelters” weekend.
Valerie’s story spread quickly around Los Angeles and Orange County, where Valerie had been adopted. A subsequent report by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Task Force, which contradicted some of the story’s details, did nothing to calm tempers.
Valerie’s case highlights a larger problem with pet adoption presented as the only alternative to euthanasia. It’s appealing to believe that all we need to do is find those animals new homes to reach the goal of “no kill.” The reality is a lot more complex.
Since the late 1990s, reducing animal shelter populations through adoption has been a prime piece in the “no kill” strategy. Shelter hours have been extended to accommodate working people in the hopes they’ll visit and find a pet. Volunteers and staff members post cute photos and videos online; supervised dog “play groups” let would-be adopters see animals happily romping together, rather than caged and lunging at the bars. Thousands of independent rescue groups of all sizes have taken custody of shelter animals; they have fostered, groomed, spayed and neutered them, medically treated and trained them, and found them homes. All of this is a good thing. The problem is that while regions like New England and the Pacific Northwest report shortages of shelter animals, nationwide it’s a different story. Because of the continued high intake volume in many states, the United States still euthanizes up to two million dogs and cats a year, with rates highest in disadvantaged communities. Not coincidentally, shelter intake is higher in those communities as well.
Take parts of Los Angeles, which has had an explicit no-kill policy for its shelters since 2012. At the moment, every public shelter in the city is full, and the South Los Angeles shelter, in one of the most densely populated and disadvantaged parts of town, has been crowded for months, with dogs being housed two and three to a cage.
A big part of the reason shelters fill is poverty: An estimated one-quarter of shelter animals are there after their owners have surrendered them because of family dysfunction or financial pressure. A dog may be sick and there’s no money for a vet; a landlord may be threatening eviction. The animals of the poor end up in shelters even when their owners desperately want to keep them. If a dog gets out and is picked up by animal control, for instance, impound and reclamation fees and fines can make retrieving it unaffordable. Ignorance and misinformation about sterilization, and not enough affordable, easily available surgery options, result in even more dogs that no one can care for.
Adoption promotion and events like low-price giveaways address none of these issues and can create problems of their own by enabling abusers and, far more commonly, impulse buyers. Adoption becomes a feel-good “numbers” game, in which we carefully and proudly track only how many animals have left the shelter. No one notes how many of them end up back in the system. The head of a well-established rescue group told me that just days after a “clear the shelters” event, she saw three recently adopted dogs being returned to two Los Angeles-area shelters. “The adopters had ‘changed their minds,'” she said. Indeed, no one knows how any of these animals fare at all. A longtime Los Angeles shelter volunteer observed that “had Valerie not come across the path of the Ghetto Rescue people, no one would even know her story.”
Perhaps most significantly, continued overemphasis on getting animals out of the shelter obscures the fact that we need to acknowledge the connection between animal and human struggles before we can prevent so many from coming in.
Models exist. Downtown Dog Rescue’s Shelter Intervention Program, at the South Los Angeles shelter, offers financial assistance to pet owners who are considering animal surrender, including vouchers for vet care and cash to pay reclamation-related fines. In the past five years, the program has helped keep nearly 5,000 animals at home. More attention to educating communities about spay and neuter, more information about training, and especially more access to spay and neuter through community clinics and mobile vans are tactics with proven value: Before the first wave of mass pet sterilization in California in the 1970s, the shelter expert Peter Marsh has pointed out, 21 percent of the state’s entire population of dogs and cats was killed each year.
Twenty-four hours after she died, Valerie had a memorial Facebook page. It featured an original adoption promotion photo that showed her heartbreakingly bright-eyed and eager. Several foundations offered thousands in reward money for information leading to an arrest and conviction of her abusers, and activists swore they’d keep up the pressure on authorities. Meanwhile, the shelter from which she was adopted announced it was joining the latest nationwide “Clear the Shelters” day, scheduled for Aug. 18. With dogs as with much else, Americans cling to our simple, comforting narratives and our old and easy solutions.
The pound as we know it was designed to contain or dispose of strays. These days, most of us think the goal is to save and eventually find new homes for them. But especially if a shelter is to be deemed “no kill,” holding a dog can entail locking an intensely social creature alone in a cage, perhaps indefinitely. Jail time can make any dog mean, fearful, compulsive, and depressed—in a word, nuts. Which makes it less adoptable. Which means it’s trapped.
That’s where a program called Dogs Playing for Life comes in and why, on some mornings, a fenced yard at the L.A. County Animal Care Center in Downey resembles a dog park. Two scruffy mutts circle each other, sniff butts, and exchange kisses. Two more race madly. An old male tries to hump every female in sight, but his legs keep giving out. The shelter, which serves two dozen, mostly poor, communities, is so physically grim—pale yellow barracks, the pervasive scent of pee—that the sight of joyful canines almost doesn’t compute.
Conceived by dog trainer Aimee Sadler, the program is based on the premise that enhancing the quality of dogs’ lives will help save them. Promoting a no- kill policy is fine, Sadler says, “but there’s nothing humane about keeping dogs alive if that means letting them go crazy in a kennel.”
Sadler, who’s 50, was working outside of New York City in the late 1990s when the idea came into focus. A wealthy client paid her to train some dogs at a local shelter. There were many and time was short, so Sadler decided to let them play together first in a loosely supervised group. The roughhousing seemed to transform the dogs: They were relaxed. Happy. Training them was easier than she expected. Sadler took note. So did her client, who for the next 17 years paid her to work with any shelter that was interested.
Persuading shelters to let her experiment could be a challenge. Vets worried about dogs fighting, and staff resisted change. Sadler’s own attitude probably didn’t help. “I can be pretty abrasive,” she says and laughs. But then they saw how dogs that participated in the program bounced around to contented exhaustion and didn’t fight. They became more social and less hyper, barky, and loud. Dogs that had seemed shy turned out to have been cowed by the kennel din. Others that attacked the bars were desperate to move. Their true personalities emerged. Employees liked watching the animals play, and that outside time meant outside pooping, keeping sleeping areas clean. Would-be adopters liked that they could see how dogs behaved in a more natural setting. And for shelter administrators, the optics were great.
PHOTO BY JOE TORENO
Word spread. Over years spent largely on the road—by the end of 2017 she will have worked for some 200 shelters in multiple states—Sadler distilled her methods into a concise program aimed at “open admission” shelters (facilities that don’t turn away any dogs, regardless of their age, health, or behavior) and paid for by grants. It includes classroom training for staff (which, Sadler says, involves “lots of videos that make everyone’s heads explode as we pry open entrenched attitudes”), a manual with equipment lists (flat collars, leashes, an air horn to halt conflicts that could involve the use of teeth), and rules for grouping canines in the yard: Dogs whose play style is “gentle & dainty,” for instance, should not share space with the “rough & rowdy.” In August, the ASPCA and Petco Foundation gave Dogs Playing for Life a $1.5 million grant to expand to municipal shelters across the country, beginning in L.A.
In theory, dogs calmed and socialized through play get adopted more readily. The county doesn’t have supporting numbers yet, but members of rescue groups, which for years have had nothing good to say about the county system, offer that they’re visiting its shelters to find animals to place more often. “I like going to Downey because the dogs there aren’t going apeshit,” says one. “You get notes on what a particular animal is like. Your first visual is them outside playing.” Animal-care attendant Amber Chute, who’s worked at the Downey shelter for eight years, gets tearful talking about the change: “This work can be so stressful. We see animals come in in horrific condition. Out here we get to see them happy.”
The morning passes; dogs cycle in and out. Three jump into a filled kiddie pool and lap up dirty water. A pit bull rolls over for a belly rub. A skinny shepherd scrounges up a rock and begs for a game of fetch. All are animals whose lives have somehow gone wrong, leaving them homeless and facing uncertain futures. For a few minutes, though, in the yard, they are the pets they once were and might again be.
Pinta the Rottweiler and I were on our evening walk when she stopped suddenly, stiffening at the sight of another dog ahead on the sidewalk. I had time for two thoughts —Look out! and Nah, it’ll be okay— before 70 pounds of lunging muscle jerked the leash from 0 to 60, yanking my ring finger sideways. Oh damn, I thought when I caught my breath and looked down at its weird new angle. This is not good.
That turned out to be an understatement. Who knew that a joint could splinter? Two years, one complex surgical procedure, two casts and many months of physical therapy later, the finger (on my dominant hand, naturally) flexes just enough that I can type; I will never make a fist again. I would feel even stupider—I’ve owned big, strong dogs for 17 years, and knew better than to wrap the leash around my fingers as I did—if stories of others felled by their dogs hadn’t started coming my way. There was the emailed photo of a friend’s bloody face after her huge Akita mix tangled her in the leash and she went down. Another showed me a finger even more crooked than my own. I read about the French pro soccer player who missed a big game because he’d twisted his ankle while walking his dog, and the South African cricket goalie sidelined with a wrenched knee after an altercation featuring two Jack Russells.
What I’ve dubbed the “DRI,” or Dog-Related Injury, seems to be everywhere. We who love our dogs like to brag about how they keep us social, active and fit. What we don’t like to admit is that while those dogs (usually) don’t bite the hands that feed them, they have been known to break them.
How often do our sweet co-pilots trip us, knock us over, dislocate our shoulders and break our wrists, slam us in the knees, and head-butt us? Interestingly, no public agency seems to think it’s worth tracking the prevalence of DRIs, but orthopedists, ER docs, researchers and even professional dog trainers know the answer: a lot. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control released an analysis of five years of emergency room injury data. In their report, some 86,000 fall injuries were associated with pets, mostly dogs, annually. (The injuries affected all age groups, but older patients were more likely to break a bone.)
Another study, done in 2010 in England, looked at traumaand fracture-clinic patients in a rural general hospital and found that a significant percentage of the injuries had involved the patients’ dogs. A majority had fallen, but two caught their fingers in their dog’s collar, one fell into a hole the dog had dug in the garden, and one had been pushing her reluctant dog out of the house into the rain when the dog suddenly moved and she tumbled down the front steps.
In 2005, in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, a Philadelphia physician with persistent elbow pain reported “discovering” a new condition, “Hogan’s elbow.” He traced his problem to walking Hogan, his unruly black Lab. Mark S. Cohen, MD, a hand and elbow surgeon at Rush University Medical Center and Midwest Orthopedics at Rush in Chicago, notes that he and his colleagues see DRIs that include severe finger and wrist fractures, dislocations, and ruptured tendons “all the time.”
DRIs can also be caused by less predictable events. In 2011, tabloids reported that Martha Stewart needed nine stitches to repair her upper lip after she leaned down to whisper goodbye to her sleeping French Bulldog, who bolted awake and knocked her in the face. Betty Pinkartz Donnelson was done in by a 12-pound Terrier, who came flying across the room when he spotted her on the couch putting on her shoes and thought that meant a walk was in the offing. “His head hit the base of my little finger at just the right angle, and I heard this loud pop,” she says. “I ran some errands and it kept swelling and hurting more. I had a spiral fracture and ended up with a metal plate, six screws and months of physical therapy. Two years later, I still can’t carry a suitcase in that hand.”
Most of the time, though, a DRI is evidence of human error. “People get hurt walking a dog who’s never been trained, and whom they’re not capable of handling,” says Michael Chill of Los Angeles–based Animal Services Dog Training and Behavior. “They come to me after they develop carpal tunnel syndrome from yanking too hard on the leash for years.”
We also get hurt because we get lazy, careless, fail (like me) to pay attention to our dog’s signals or are so obsessed with our phones that we text even when that means holding onto 50 pounds of raw energy with one hand. We ignore advice about the dangers of retractable leashes, when a casual Google search reveals pictures of nightmarish leash burns and even tales of amputation. (One woman whose leash cord got pulled tight when her large Lab bolted was horrified to spot part of a human finger lying nearby, and even more horrified when she realized it was her own.)
In the mindlessness of the moment, we forget basic rules like never intrude on squabbling dogs. Dan Mayfield says his two Salukis “love to box, standing up on their rear legs, snarling and pushing each other around with their front paws. So one day they’re doing this, and I think it’s getting to be too much for the 10-year-old and stick my hand in to stop them, and the three-year-old bites me, hard, right through the web of my thumb.”
And sometimes, because we get lulled by the dull, sweet zen of daily walks on the same streets at the same time, we mistake an animal who craves predictability for one who is always predictable.
“One of my clients was walking her two dogs when both suddenly lunged after a squirrel that had come down from a tree,” says trainer Michael Chill. “Each dog ran to a different side and my client, caught in the middle, hit the tree and broke her nose.”
Sharon Jensen, who ran regularly with her Golden Retriever, Clancy—“always on a leash and always on my left, because I’m a good pet owner”—did fine until the day the two were sprinting and Clancy abruptly decided to swerve right. “He cut in front of me and I went head over heels over him,” recalls Jensen. “I got tangled in the leash, fell on my right side, badly sprained my ankle, scraped my knees, wrecked my wrist. This was in the days before iPhones, so I limped all the way home.”
Michelle Bekey’s beloved Great Dane mix, Ava, was 80 pounds and nine months old when, she says, “with no warning, he decided to dive at something behind me and yanked my arm and shoulder backwards. It felt like someone had put a cattle prod at the base of my neck. I found out later I’d torn two disks.”
Carole Pearson runs the rescue Dawg Squad and is no fool about big dogs, many of whom she’s owned and fostered over the years, but even she was a victim of her expectations. “When I had Jack, my original Rottie, who weighed 130 pounds, and Gus, an 80-pound Chow, I took them over to my mother’s house every day when I went to work, and fell into a routine of opening the car door and getting their leashes while they were getting out,” she says. “It was fine. Until one morning, they saw a cat. My mom lived at the top of a hill and they went downhill after it. I was wearing a long black dress, black boots and nylons, and when I took off after them, my mom said I looked like the flying nun. Half a block away, I fell, wrecked my clothes, gashed my knees and an elbow, and bruised a rib. There was a school across the street and some teachers ran out to help me—at which point, Jack, who thought they were hurting me, came back and stood over me, growling. I was screaming ‘Everybody get away if you don’t want to get bit!’ My mother laughed about it the rest of her life.”
Another common human mistake: forgetting that a new animal will probably act differently than a familiar one. Cathy Scott had trained her two dogs to sit and wait at the front door when it was time to go out. No one passed that message to June, a Lab/Pit mix someone dumped in Scott’s yard, and whom she’d agreed to foster. “I was getting ready to take all three dogs to the park, and had June’s leash wrapped in my fingers because I wasn’t expecting movement,” she recalls. “My dogs stayed still when the door opened, but June leaped, and I could hear my forefinger snap.” She adds, “I was going to the park to meet friends who wanted to network June, so we still went. When we got home, I iced my broken finger and finally went to the doctor.”
Another woman, too embarrassed to be identified, recalls taking a new, young Chow/Golden mix rescue for a walk at 10 at night. “Not the smartest thing I ever did. He saw something and went after it, and I went flying, dislocated my thumb and fell on my face so hard I lost a front tooth and broke my jaw. I was bleeding and my husband insisted we go to the ER, where they questioned the two of us separately about what had happened. I realized they thought my husband had hit me. After 20 minutes, they finally accepted that it had been the dog.”
The sad irony of a DRI is that the damage often outlasts the beloved animal who caused it. Clancy, the Golden who sent Sharon Jensen sprawling, passed away years ago, but that fall was the beginning of a long orthopedic journey, she says. “I would’ve had problems with my hips eventually, but the accident messed them up earlier. It really had lifetime consequences. Clancy will have my heart forever—and his behavior has my bones.”
HOW TO AVOID A DRI
While there are a million ways to get a DRI, common sense can help you avoid most of them.
Train a dog early and thoroughly. “An animal’s size and strength shouldn’t be an issue if you provide proper training that teaches good behavior and how to maintain it in pressure situations,” says Michael Chill.
Use leashes and restraints suitable for an individual dog’s size and personality. “If you have a dog prone to redirect aggression when frustrated, you don’t want a harness that turns the dog toward you,” says Chill, who adds, “Be proactive on walks. If you have two dogs prone to tangling with each other, bring along a distraction, like a spray bottle of water, a penny can or an air horn that will wake the dead.”
Don’t assume (even for a minute) that one dog will act like another, or that the same dog will act the same way every time.
Wear good shoes on walks so falls are less likely.
Never grab a dog’s collar or wrap a leash around your fingers, says surgeon Mark Cohen. As he notes, when an animal pulls, the twisting can result in fractures or cartilage, ligament or tendon damage. Instead, hold the leash flat in your palm.
If you use a retractable leash, learn the right way to use retractable leashes.
Pay attention to other dogs, cats, squirrels, skateboards, pavement conditions, your own dog’s signals. No spacing out. No email-checking or texting, ever.