That was my first thought—and my second. It was as though I’d been hit in the gut. Not that I’d expected anything, really; I hadn’t thought about what he’d look like. I’d just wanted to see him again, and now, incredibly, I was.
I met Maurice in 2000 at my friend Daphne’s Atlanta home. He was about three months old and ridiculously cute—a pint-sized golden boy with a charcoal snout and ears that pointed skyward. He made me want a pup of my own—not an unusual reaction to playing with a puppy. What was unusual was what happened next.
I adopted one.
Gryffin was Maurice’s brother and he, with the rest of their litter, was at the DeKalb County Humane Society outside Atlanta. I could have chosen any one of the puppies, but something about Gryffin spoke to me. Like Maurice, Gryffin was golden with charcoal accents he’d later outgrow, but whereas Maurice’s ears stood tall, Gryffin’s flopped forward.
For two Southern boys, the dogs lived very little of their lives in the South. Gryffin came with me to Philadelphia, then to suburban New Jersey. Maurice went with Daphne to Israel. Now, thirteen years after meeting Maurice, I was seeing him again—this time, in Tel Aviv; this time, with Kevin and our daughters. We scoured Maurice’s face for some resemblance to Gryffin, whom we’d had to put down three years earlier. A tumor we hadn’t known about was tucked behind his ribcage burst and filled his belly with blood—one day he was playing ball in the backyard, the next he was gone. So we stared at Maurice, and we saw Gryffin in his snout and in his eyes, though still not in his ears.
Kevin said he felt a sense of closure, that seeing Maurice in life somehow allowed him to let go of Gryffin in a way that had before been elusive. My feelings were messy. Maurice moved slowly. Stairs were a struggle. He looked weary. Part of me found comfort in knowing that Gryffin never slowed, never struggled with steps, never faced the frailties that accompany old age. But, I wondered—have been wondering—did I feel that comfort for him or for me? Seeing the toll that Father Time was taking on Maurice hit me unexpectedly, sending me on an emotional rollercoaster I wasn’t prepared for.
It’s been several months since I saw Maurice, and I’m still struggling to come to terms with my feelings—about what they mean and about what they might say about me and my ability to face old age—be it in a dog, a family member, or myself.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: I didn’t set out to write a book so much as I set out to discover why the puppy I adopted from a small rescue organization seemed unusually submissive and fearful of men, and why she—a dog from North Carolina—was up for adoption in a New Jersey garden supply store. At the time I began to dig for answers, I was in the midst of a career crisis: Should I pursue a doctoral degree in education? Could I be content as a stay-at-home mom teaching a few college classes a semester? What was my purpose?
As I uncovered little bits about Galen’s past and learned about the scope of the dog problem in the United States, I realized there was a story that needed telling—not just about all the healthy and adoptable dogs being killed in shelters (that story’s been told), but about what’s being done—and what more can be done—to save lives and stop the killing. I now had my purpose.
I spent about two years reporting and writing the book. My favorite part of this journey has been meeting the amazing people who are in the trenches saving lives, be it through increasing access to spay/neuter surgeries for some of America’s poorest pet owners or finding new ways to promote shelter adoptions. For so many of these people, their work is wholly volunteer, squeezed in around their day jobs but done because of their deep love for dogs and their inability to stand idle while so many suffer.
Q: Tell us about some of the research you did for Dogland.
A: Some of the toughest reporting I had to do for Dogland was to visit several of the South’s under-funded, under-staffed, decades-old public shelters. I knew that many of the dogs I saw there—beautiful, healthy, vibrant dogs—would be euthanized. But I also had the opportunity to visit shelters where every healthy dog was cared for and socialized until some man or some woman walked through the shelter door, peered into the dog’s kennel, and decided that dog would have a home.
I got a lot of mental whiplash reporting this story because it seemed like for every potential solution to an existing problem, that solution sparked unintended consequences that created more problems—or at least resistance to the solution. For instance, low-cost spay/neuter clinics would seem the perfect solution to increasing spay/neuter surgery rates. But they are often opposed by veterinarians. Sometimes the opposition stems from greed, but sometimes it’s because veterinarians have seen spay/neuter clinics morph into full-service veterinary clinics that can threaten a private vet’s livelihood. As one supporter of low-cost spay/neuter clinics told me, “If our goal is spay/neuter, then every time we are doing something that is not a spay, not a neuter, then we’re not working towards our goal.”
Perhaps what surprised me most, as a person outside the animal welfare world, is how much animosity and infighting exists among the players inside that world—at the expense of the animals. In fact, at an annual conference sponsored by the Best Friends Animal Society, one of the sessions included a discussion on the importance of collaboration. Let go of egos, quit vilifying others, and walk in one another’s shoes was the message delivered to conference goers.
Q: Does the United States really have a “dog problem”?
A: Yes. When more than a million healthy, adoptable dogs are euthanized in animal shelters each year, we have a dog problem. And of course, that doesn’t count all the dogs killed by their owners or who die as strays having been dumped on the sides of roads, in wooded areas, or wherever people choose to rid themselves of unwanted pets.
Q: Isn’t shelter euthanasia on the decrease?
A: It is, and that’s wonderful. But we’ve hit a plateau. Animal welfare groups say about twenty million dogs and cats were euthanized in American shelters in the 1970s. Now, more than four decades later, that number is down to about four million. But that’s an outrageous number, especially when you consider that animal welfare groups say 90 percent of those are healthy and adoptable.
Q: What’s the root of the problem?
A: The root is that too many pet owners do not spay and neuter their dogs—thus there are too many accidental litters. The solution would seem straightforward: Have more pet owners get their dogs fixed. Unfortunately, issues of accessibility and affordability make that more easily said than done. According to an organization called Spay FIRST!, fewer than ten states can claim to offer pet owners accessible and affordable spay/neuter. The organization defines “access” as having a veterinary clinic, a low-cost spay/neuter facility, or a program that transports dogs to a clinic within fifty miles of a pet owner’s home. It defines “affordability” as keeping the cost less than what a low- or minimum-wage worker makes in a day—in some cases making it free. Then there’s also the issue of education. For many dog owners, especially those who grew up in rural or farming communities, spaying and neutering dogs was something that traditionally just wasn’t done, so it is something that needs to be taught.
Q: Why do we often hear the situation for dogs—in terms of shelter euthanasia—is worse in the South than in any other region of the country?
A: In part, it’s an issue of numbers—the South has a large population—including a large dog-owning population which itself has historical roots—and a large percentage of Southerners live in poverty. Thus the issues of accessibility and affordability are ever-present. That historical relationship stems from the region’s agrarian history. Dogs were quite useful on the farm—they had a host of jobs, from protecting the homestead to accompanying their owners on hunts. Everyone had them, and no one fixed them. It just wasn’t something that was done—the American Veterinary Medical Association didn’t even establish standards for spay/neuter until 1923. And still, by the 1970s, only 10 percent of pet dogs and 1 percent of pet cats were fixed. Dogs also tended to live outside the house, so if a dog had puppies it’s not like a family went from one dog in the house to nine or ten. They lived outside—they were animals. They were property. They were not pets—certainly not this notion we have today of companion animals.
Q: If more people rescued animals from shelters, rather than bought from breeders or pet stores, could we solve this problem?
A: No, though it would certainly help. As I heard over and over again, we have to “turn off the spigot.” Stop the procreation. The other thing I heard from shelter workers repeatedly was, “We’re adopting them out one and a time, and they’re making them eight, nine, ten at a time.”
Q: How do we, as a society, make spay/neuter more affordable and accessible?
A: First, bring the price of the surgery down. This can be done with more low-cost clinics that specialize in high-volume spay/neuter surgery. And it can be done by creating state programs, like New Jersey’s Animal Population Control program, that help fund the surgery for low-income pet owners and those who adopt from shelters.
Second, make the surgery more accessible. Mobile units. More low-cost clinics. Have private vets donate space in their clinics one morning a week to low-cost, high-volume surgeries. People can donate to low-cost spay/neuter clinics so the clinics can offer low-income pet owners deeper discounts.
Third, through education. Teach people about the benefits of fixing a dog to the animal’s health and behavior, and the consequences of not fixing a dog to overpopulation.
Q: Many people who rescue dogs probably wish they knew their dog’s history. What made you actually seek it out?
A: With my first rescue—Gryffin—I always wondered what his life was like before he was found in a box on the side of an Atlanta-area highway. He, too, had some little oddities—he was afraid of garbage bags and he disliked dogs who were boxers. If we were walking down the street or if we were in the dog park, the only breed he would have a negative reaction to was the boxer. But I never did anything—I just wondered.
With Galen, there was something about her submissiveness that was so extreme … and then the timing was right in my life. I was having a mini-mid-career crisis, and reporting this book seemed to be a way for me to move in a direction that had purpose.
Q: You’ve said that Galen could be the poster-puppy for America’s dog problem. What do you mean?
A: Galen was born to a dog who wasn’t spayed because her family couldn’t afford it. The family’s home also didn’t have a fenced-in yard, so when she—her name is Daisy—was outside, she was tied to a tree along the side of the house. Daisy’s owner told me that she didn’t intend to breed Daisy. What happened was that when Daisy was in one of her heat cycles, a neighbor’s dog impregnated her. The result was a seven-pup litter that the family could not afford to care for and that it couldn’t give away. So, the owner and her son dropped the puppies at the shelter when they were six weeks old. But that litter was lucky—they were seen by a rescue organization that pulled them, had them fostered, and had them transported to New Jersey.
An interview with Among Animals contributor Jean Ryan (“Greyhound”) by Jennifer Hartsock
Q: Jean, many of your short works are inspired by real life events—ranging from media, friends, or your expertise in the food industry. Do they offer many unexpected sources of inspiration?
A: Considered in a certain light, at a certain time, anything can be material for a story. If we are attentive and receptive, everything becomes an offering. There is a box of ashes on my dresser, the remains of my beloved cat. I had intended to scatter these ashes over an area in my backyard where my cat used to nap, but I have not been able to do this, not in fifteen years. The other day while dusting the dresser, I lifted this box and suddenly thought of the character in my latest story, a woman who, stranded by injury, ruminates on some incriminating evidence she has left behind. I slipped the box of ashes into the story, and this detail served to round out the woman’s character and make her more sympathetic, while also providing an evocative visual. Details are crucial, the right ones at the right time; as a writer I love rummaging through my options and finding the jewels. Sometimes, as in this instance, the jewels find me.
Q: You’ve stated in previous interviews that you enjoy how the mind makes unconscious connections. In “Greyhound,” our narrator adopts a rescued greyhound hoping to heal her partner, Holly. But, when Fawn bestows a reserved attitude, our narrator abandons the idea. Does our narrator’s new detachment unconsciously allow Holly and Fawn to heal?
A: Yes, I think so. Eczema is a chronic condition punctuated by flare-ups. There is only so much we can control in life; with illnesses like these, the less we worry and try to master them, the better. When the narrator brought Fawn home, she had high hopes that the dog would be just the tonic Holly needed. Fawn’s diffidence, her continuing unwillingness to run, was initially discouraging. The narrator was compelled to accept this and step back, allowing the dog and Holly to heal in their own time. Compassion is a wonderful thing, but we can sometimes hinder our loved ones with our concern over them.
Q: When Holly and Fawn appear to be on the mend, our narrator dismisses how long their “state of grace” might last. Does this suggest Fawn is a tool for distraction rather than potential growth between her owners?
A: I don’t believe Fawn serves as a distraction in this story as much as an example, a demonstration of the power of patience and forbearance. The narrator’s not needing to know how long Holly’s latest reprieve will last shows that she has become more comfortable with uncertainty, as well as the transitory nature of life in general. Holding on tightly, expecting too much, has not proved useful, and so she has adopted a more tolerant view. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is forever, and this is knowledge she can live with.
Q: There is a strong primitive theme in “Greyhound,” from an Egyptian dog breed to Holly’s passion for creating dioramas of the Mesozoic era. What significance does ancient history have in your narrative? For example, are Holly and Fawn’s reserved and secretive natures (shown through Holly’s eczema and Fawn’s resistance to touch) connected to ancient history? Is Will’s resemblance to Christ similarly a historical reference?
A: This is interesting. I had not considered the historical references and their thematic contribution until now. Writing is a mysterious process, calling on both the conscious and subconscious mind, and the symbols that work their way into stories are often unintentional. I can tell you that I have been mesmerized by ancient history since I was a child—dinosaurs, pyramids, the Colosseum. I was hunting for fossils at the age of seven, and I still shiver when I look at the specimens I collected, some of them over 400 million years old. I also have remnants of human history, potshards and arrowheads. There is a calming quality to these treasures. It comforts me to know that the earth has been here such a long time, that creatures and people have come and gone, and my fate will be no different. This knowledge puts things in perspective and makes my one little life feel less urgent. Perhaps this big-picture perspective is what helps the characters in “Greyhound” become more peaceful and accepting. I can’t say for certain, but it’s an intriguing idea. I’m glad you raised the question.
Q: The narrator compares Fawn to a child with autism or a person who is paralyzed. What reaction did you anticipate this would have?
A: Comparing these maladies to Fawn’s condition was automatic. This dog was limited by her circumstances. As a race dog, she was not allowed a natural life, and she was consequently cautious and remote—effectively unreachable, at least for a time. Her refusal to run was another reflection of her dysfunction, and it seems plausible to me that in her dreams she would be running, doing what her body was made for. Animals have robust dreams—we can tell by their whimpers and movements—and why wouldn’t they?
Writers are cautioned against anthropomorphism, but I think there is a far greater danger in assuming that animals do not feel or exhibit a range of emotions. It is obvious that the way an animal is treated contributes to its behavior: whether it is friendly or cowed, aggressive or submissive. Like people, some animals are slow learners, others can’t relax; some are asocial, while others need constant attention. It takes no special talent to see these things. It only takes interest and empathy. I don’t know why everyone does not possess these qualities. I don’t know why decency needs to be legislated.
Q: Therapy dogs often accompany their owners on visits to regional hospitals, memory care facilities, assisted living centers, the local library, among other places. How do therapy dogs assist people with difficulties? Are certain facilities more therapy-pet friendly than others?
A: I am not familiar with access restrictions regarding therapy animals. I imagine that more and more places are opening their doors, understanding the importance of this practice. For the visually impaired, the value of guide dogs and miniature horses cannot be overestimated. Equally valuable are the animals that are brought into hospitals and other facilities for the solace they bring to the lonely and the fearful. People and animals co-habit this planet, and we are designed to share our joys and help each other through our difficulties.