In the foggy past, when I was an employable journalist and newspapers were still a thing, I interviewed the director of a county animal control shelter in northern Montana for an article about the facility’s skyrocketing intake and euthanasia numbers.
The area was largely blue-to-black collar, a mix of agriculture and mining boosted by seasonal tourism. At the time, nearby resorts were seeing a jump in winter sports popularity, wealthy out-of-staters were building part-time palaces, and the oil-and-gas industry was affixing a new batch of leeches to some of the most beautiful land in the country; this meant a sudden influx of laborers and their families (and pets), but due to the nature of the work, and the physical and economic boundaries of the region, few could or would remain long term. When people lose their jobs and have to move, pets often end up behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.
The county’s animal control director was a law enforcement veteran then in his mid-50s; he had been rewarded for decades of service with a position that oversaw the intake of nearly 3,500 dogs and cats annually, and the extermination of more than one-third of those animals because the shelter had little space and less budget, and there were limited no-kill organizations and foster homes at the time to help lessen the load. Most of the animals that passed through the shelter were relinquished by owners unable to care for or move with them, or that had simply been abandoned to fate.
A rugged Big Sky State native with a sturdy, stoic façade and direct manner, the man melted into a wet mess when he discussed putting the animals down and the toll it took on those who did it. He had grown up on a ranch, he explained, and was accustomed to dogs as working and companion animals. He pursued his very role because he thought it a noble endeavor and one in which he could make a positive impact; he respected the animals as individual beings, creatures with souls. Hell, he and his wife had three dogs in their comparatively small residential home; each of the dogs was a rescue that had come close to its expiration date in the shelter. If the family still had the ranch, he remarked in a rare moment of levity, he would have to cite himself for having too many dogs.
October is Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, and if you’re considering a canine I beg you like an ill-mannered mutt to give a shelter pet a chance (and if you don’t at least think about it, you are hereby sentenced to multiple guilt-viewings of the depressing Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial that even she cannot bear to watch). I understand that people have breed fetishes1, and I get the desire to maintain the bloodlines; without people like this, we would not have been blessed with Best in Show. But a dog is no healthier, no easier to train, no more predictable, no better a companion for having a notarized family tree and costing the equivalent of a car down payment. (And if you’re a breed snob, remember that purebreds end up in shelters too, they just usually don’t pack their paperwork; puppy mills and overbreeding are believed to contribute to between 25 and 30 percent of the U.S. animal shelter population.)
I did not intend to adopt a dog the day I acquired Reese, which was the same day I visited the animal control shelter to discuss the county’s unwanted pet problem. But something connected between that then-football-size, yowling lunatic and I as I toured the facility’s adoption pens.
I inquired about the rambunctious, 3-month-old, husky-shepherd mix, who more than any of the other dogs seemed to want out.
Me: What do I do if I’m interested in one of the dogs?
Animal control worker: You give me 25 dollars2 and I give you the dog.
Me: Um, I think I want the little loud one….
As Reese, then merely and literally a number, was escorted out of his kennel, the animal control employee stepped around the counter to present me with a certificate good for one free neutering (for the dog, not myself) and some preliminary supplies. She patted Reese on the head.
“I’m glad someone got him,” she said. “He was due to be put down in a couple days.”
The world, I believe, is a better place for Reese’s presence. He has provided more happiness in our 10-plus years together than any drug or man-made entertainment3. Millions of dogs4—big and small, young and old, loungers and runners, calm and crazed, mutt and pedigreed (in other words: the perfect dog)—are waiting in shelters to offer the same.1I have a noted fixation for the wolfish breeds, particularly huskies and malamutes, attributable to an overconsumption of Jack London, Farley Mowat, Walt Morey and Barry Lopez books as a child. 2Reese cost only $5 more than Meriwether Lewis paid for his famed Newfoundland, Seaman, in 1803. Our adventures may not be as noteworthy, but Reese has proven a likewise sagacious and steadfast companion—even on a trip down the Missouri River—despite being of mixed breeds (though I would note that his personality is more Irish-Jamaican than Siberian-German). 3Even if his adoption led to three more rescue dogs and the insanity and expenses entailed therein. 4 Like most things gone shitshow on this planet, humans are responsible for the overpopulation of homeless pets (failure to spay or neuter, irresponsible adoption, unethical/illicit breeding, etc.). While there is no central reporting system for animal shelters in the United States, the Humane Society estimates in its Pets by the Numbers report that 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year; of the cats and dogs considered adoptable, roughly one-third to one-half are eventually euthanized.