BOOKS: Tails of Recovery

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2009:

Tails of Recovery: Addicts & the Pets That Love Them
by Nancy A. Schenck
HarperCollins Publishers (10 East 53rd Street., New York, NY
10022), 2009. 175 pages, hardcover. $29.99.

Tails of Recovery offers a glimpse into the tangled lives of
substance abusers, whose behavior does not always elicit sympathy.
While high, their behavior is often not only illegal but disdainful
and dismissive toward the norms and values of civilized society.
In recovery, most ask for forgiveness. Some do not. The
people profiled in Tales of Recovery may be loved by their pets, but
they have not all shown responsible behavior, even though all of
them are years into recovery, following twelve-step programs and
typically holding jobs.
A few treated their dogs and cats badly while under the
influence. Others were indifferent to their pets’ needs. One moved
from criminal behavior to a legal activity which may contribute at
least as much to animal suffering.

“Around the corner of the house, I was confronted by the
worst nightmare I could imagine. Rasputin,” his pit bull terrier,
“had starved to death,” recalls this man, a drug addict 21 years
into recovery. Haunting recollections of Rasputin’s skeletal remains
changed the addict’s life–but he was not prosecuted for starving the
dog, a misdemeanor in all states and a potential felony in several.
Concerned neighbors had called animal control but the addict fed them
excuses and no one else intervened.
Once clean, instead of serving homeless or victimized dogs at
a shelter, this former addict claims to be atoning by breeding pit
bulls. Puppies, he says, helped him heal.
Yet a million homeless pit bulls per year are killed in U.S.
animal shelters: half of all dogs killed in shelters. Even if there
were no safety issues involving pit bulls, there is no need to breed
I have more understanding for a New Orleans woman who is
described in Tails of Recovery. When she was nine years old her
dysfunctional family adopted a mixed breed pup named Happy. Alcohol
ruled both parents’ lives, so Happy provided comfort and safety to
the girl. Years later, Happy got out one night and a car struck
him, causing grave injuries. Euthanasia ended his suffering. The
young woman couldn’t cope with either losing Happy or the chaos at
home, so she too spiraled out of control for 15 long tortuous years.
After overdosing, she landed at a psychiatric hospital.
Recovery followed. Eventually she settled down, met a man,
and moved to Las Vegas. The couple adopted a mutt named Sophie who
kept them grounded. Her partner asks, “Can we love her any more?”
The recovered addict says, “I think so.”
Another recovered addict found solace in fish. Early into
his recovery a faulty heater killed nearly all of his fish. The loss
evoked empathy and concern for the helpless beings, feelings buried
by years of substance abuse. With a new tank and more fish, he
devoted himself to responsible fish care.
“I watched a butterfly fish and looked into her eyes,” he
says. “I realized she had a soul.” His tank is always clean. His
fish are well fed. Tending a tank full of fish aided his recovery,
says the addict.
A scrappy cat named Delia became a companion to a 48-year-old
female recovering addict. The addict preferred dogs, but the
constraints on her time resulting from a busy work schedule and
twelve-step meetings suggested a cat would be all she could handle.
So she adopted Delia.
The cat taught her patience, tolerance, and acceptance,
traits she often lacked during her years of addiction. Keeping a pet
instilled in her a sense of responsibility. As a drug user, she
lived only for the next high. Now she had to consider the cat’s
needs in addition to her own.
Addiction does not discriminate. Corporate executives hooked
on cocaine throw away promising careers and scrape by on the streets.
Inmates with substance abuse problems overflow our prisons. Children
removed from addicts live in an overburdened foster care system that
may not be able to protect them any better than their tattered
Tails of Recovery is recommended for counselors who work with
substance abusing clients. This may include humane workers in a
variety of contexts, including managing personnel with substance
abuse problems, in a field where substance abuse associated with the
stress of euthanizing animals–although visibly diminished during the
past 20 years–is still believed to be the most common occupational
health and safety issue.
Most of all, Tails of Recovery affirms animals’ devotion to
their people. Even when the animals are mistreated, most remain
loyal and loving. –Debra J. White

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