BOOKS: The Animal Shelter
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2011:
Humane education classic:
The Animal Shelter by Patricia Curtis
Lodestar Books (c/o E.P. Dutton), 1984.
164 pages, hardcover. $13.95 original price.
The Animal Shelter, by Patricia Curtis, introduced a
generation of young people to humane work.
“I wrote The Animal Shelter 28 years ago, so it is badly
out-of-date,” Curtis told ANIMAL PEOPLE in May 2011, seemingly
surprised to be looked up and asked about it after all this time. “I
hope things have improved since then, both in the numbers of animals
surrendered to shelters and in the condition of shelters. My
impression is that the book got a mixed reception,” Curtis
continued. “I hope it did some good. Some shelters wrote to me that
they were grateful that I had drawn attention to their problems. But
some people couldn’t handle the truth as I tried to tell it.
One woman, a teacher, said she hated the book–it made her sick.”
Open admission shelters commonly killed more than 90% of the
dogs and cats they received when Curtis researched The Animal
Shelter. Yet, without either denying or disguising that truth,
Curtis inspired thousands of adolescent readers to volunteer at
shelters and to prepare themselves for careers in sheltering. Her
message was that, grim as shelter work could be, compassionate and
dedicated personnel could help to save some individual animal lives,
and could contribute to turning the realities around.
Now in mid-career, humane workers who encountered The Animal
Shelter in school libraries in their middle teens have contributed to
reducing the volume of shelter killing by more than 80%, and in
re-inventing shelter work to emphasize rescue, rehabilitation, and
The procedures that Curtis identified and described as best
practice are today standard practice, while many of the best
practices of today had yet to be invented. Fostering animals for
adoption, shelterless rescue organizations, neuter/return feral cat
control, offering animals for rehoming through pet supply stores,
adoption transfer of animals from other communities, and of course
anything involving the Internet and World Wide Web were all still far
in the future for all but a handful of quiet experimenters.
Many of the 25 major sources whom Curtis consulted in
researching The Animal Shelter are now deceased, including Animal
Rights International founder Henry Spira, whose fiery essays
advocating shelter reform were eclipsed by his accomplishments toward
reducing animal experimentation and raising concern for farmed
animals. Only a few of Curtis’ sources remain active in the humane
field. Among them are 34-year Denver Dumb Friends League president
Robert Rohde; Richard Avanzino, who then headed the San Francisco
SPCA and now heads Maddie’s Fund; and Joan Silaco, of New York
City, a lifelong hands-on shelter worker and volunteer who sent a
copy of The Animal Shelter to ANIMAL PEOPLE and recommended it for
“When The Animal Shelter came out,” Silaco said, “we
thought it was the best book on sheltering ever written. But maybe,”
she speculated, “it was the only book on sheltering ever written. I
don’t remember seeing anything before that.”
Indeed The Animal Shelter appears to have been the very first
book about humane work that was specifically written to help
adolescents to choose a career path–and, unfortunately, it appears
to be the last.
To this day, despite a proliferation of books describing the
work of individual sheltering organizations and arguing the pros and
cons of shelter management approaches, there appears to be no other
introductory text suitable for school collections–nothing between
story-books for younger children and training materials for adults
who are already employed in animal work.
Despite the many changes in the field since 1984, The Animal
Shelter is still structurally sound, and could relatively easily be
expanded and updated. Curtis even presciently included a still
accurate chapter about dogfighting, at a time when most of the U.S.
humane movement believed it had been extinguished.
The only error of note in Curtis’ original text was crediting
American SPCA founder Henry Bergh with introducing animal sheltering
to the U.S. This is pardonable, since the same mistake has
appeared in practically every history of humane work since Sydney H.
Colemen authored Humane Society Leaders in America for the American
Humane Association in 1924.
The ASPCA under Bergh was the first major animal advocacy
organization in the U.S., and the first animal law enforcement
agency, but Bergh tried to keep the ASPCA out of sheltering to avoid
diluting the advocacy focus. Elizabeth Morris and Annie Waln–whom
Curtis mentions in other contexts–founded the first U.S. animal
shelter, the Animal Rescue League of Philadelphia, in 1858, nine
years before Bergh started the ASPCA. Two existing shelters, the
Women’s Humane Society and the Morris Animal Refuge, are descended
from the Morris and Waln efforts.
“I am glad to hear The Animal Shelter is still relevant,
even after all these years,” Curtis told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “I have no
plans to update it, though. I am more or less retired. I wrote an
article for a magazine two years ago, but a book would be a much
more ambitious project,” she said.
Indeed producing a book comparable to The Animal Shelter for
today’s adolescents would be an ambitious project. But it would also
be a valuable service to the humane community, and to the generation
who will inherit from the people Curtis introduced to animal
sheltering the management responsibility for nearly 5,000 U.S. open