What Happens to Unwanted Dogs When They're Not Adopted

The Obama 2012 campaign is panting to give first dog Bo a starring part in its re-election bid, prominently featuring the handsome Portuguese water dog in official campaign advertisements and fundraising efforts in an effort to court the canine-loving contingent. One of those efforts is “Bark for Obama,” a cute collection of designer dog apparel; consulting on the collection was none other than Obama’s most fashionable fundraiser, Vogue’s Anna Wintour (who is known more for her love of fur coats than live animals, but whatever).

It’s all a sad reminder of how the president missed a golden opportunity to help a tragically under-represented American demographic. In 2009, after winning many dog lovers’ hearts by hinting at the possibility that his family would adopt a shelter mutt, the president instead accepted the gift of a purebred pup from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Had he made good on his promise to scoop an underdog from one of the country’s many overburdened animal shelters, the gesture would have gone a long way toward reversing the nation’s crushing homeless-dog crisis. The all-American mutt would’ve gained overnight celebrity as a status hound. But instead of casting their vote for the all-American mutt, copycats bought … Portuguese water dog puppies.

Now, a new documentary reveals, in graphic detail, just what that missed opportunity has cost the dogs of America. It’s called One Nation Under Dog, and it airs tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO, as the opening film of the annual HBO Summer Documentary Series.

There’s no question that we Americans love our dogs. There are 78.2 million owned dogs in the United States, and statistics from the American Pet Products Manufacturing Assocation show that we spend some $50 billion per year on their care, feeding, and other amenities. If we love dogs so much, then how come so mind-bogglingly many of them — a conservative estimate puts the number at about 4 million — are killed at our country’s animal shelters every year? That’s the hard-nosed question posed by One Nation Under Dog.

Subtitled “Stories of Fear, Loss & Betrayal,” it presents, in anthology format, stories of individual dogs and people that will haunt you. One Nation Under Dog is rated TV-MA (for mature audiences) because, among other things, it reveals in graphic detail what happens to unwanted dogs at animal shelters when they’re not adopted.

“Euthanasia” is a euphemism. In many states, dogs are not destroyed by lethal injection, the method regarded as most humane. That’s too expensive. Instead, they are killed in gas chambers, which accommodate several animals at one time. After one group of animals is piled in and killed, the next group is loaded on top of the just-exterminated corpses. This film boldly shows the process, letting viewers see the “before,” hear the screams and cries of the “during,” then see the “after.” As a longtime dog rescuer myself, I’ve been aware of this sad phenomenon for years. Still, I can’t get that scene out of my mind. (Gassing, by the way, isn’t cheap — it costs an obscene amount of of taxpayer dollars to destroy so many dogs, then arrange to haul away and dispose of the bodies.)

Another unpleasant reality of America’s love of dogs involves the appalling conditions at puppy mills, the high-volume breeding facilities that churn out those cute bundles of fluff sold for top dollar at pet stores. This film follows a group of rescuers as they liberate severely exploited and neglected animals kept in filthy outdoor cages, lying in their own excrement, sleeping with the corpses of dead dogs.

“There was some trepidation” about including the gas chamber sequence, admits producer Ellen Goosenberg Kent:

But I have to give credit to [executive producer] Sheila Nevins of HBO, who felt strongly that we should not euphemize euthanasia — if this is happening, and if only 19 states banned gas chambers, then this should be part of the film. It pulls back the curtain on euthanasia. Are we talking about the mercy killing of sick dogs? No. The fact that there are gas chambers in America was a complete shock to me, and it should shock everybody.

Interestingly, after filming the gassing sequence in Alabama, in the intervening months the state banned the practice, thanks to the tireless efforts of a group called the Alabama Voters for Responsible Animal Legislation.

At a recent advance screening of One Nation Under Dog, one of the rescuers told Goosenberg Kent that, seeing the gassing sequence, “her husband finally understood why she couldn’t leave a shelter without a car full of dogs.”

The film offers a few glimmers of hope. One takes the form of professional dog trainer John Gagnon, who volunteers with the rescue group Paws New England, pulling dogs from high-kill shelters in the South and transporting them northward to improve their chance at adoption. Watching Gagnon work with a highly stressed shelter dog — then witnessing layers of anxiety dissolve to reveal the highly adoptable, sweet dog beneath — is inspiring. Gagnon has rescued about a thousand dogs, and believes the homeless dog crisis to be “something Republicans and Democrats can both agree on. We are truly a nation of dog lovers in spite of what we allow to happen to them, and we don’t want to see this suffering,” he adds. “This is definitely an issue that, as a nation, we can all get behind. It’s important not only ethically and morally, but financially — we’re wasting a fortune of money, sitting back and watching this problem cycle through year after year.”
 As difficult as this film is to watch, watching is well worth the effort. Viewers will finally understand that there are very simple but impactful things we can all do to help prevent the tragic waste that’s taking place every day at animal shelters across the country. For one, we can put puppy mills out of business by bypassing the pet stores. Instead of purchasing a pet-store pup, we can adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue organization. Petfinder is the easiest, fastest way to locate the new best friend that’s perfect for you.

This is the right, American thing to do. Just ask PJ Media’s Washington D.C. editor Bridget Johnson, whose beloved “Puppacita” is a pound rescue. Any size or type of dog is available for the adopting, from purebred to mutt. Shelter-dog adoption is cost-effective at the point of sale — in answer to “how much is that doggy in the window,” adoption fees are a fraction of pet-store price tags — and adopting saves money for the community by springing a dog from puppy prison. That’s a win-win if there ever was one.

Spaying and neutering dogs is another easy step all Americans can take to save its canine citizens. It’s high time to cut down on the dog overpopulation that meets its sad end in the cruel, costly gas chamber. Just one unaltered female dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 puppies in only six years. A simple spay/neuter procedure prevents unwanted births.

Finally, voters can take an active interest in where their political representatives stand on animal issues such as euthanasia and puppy mills. Turning America into a no-kill nation is not a red or blue issue; it’s bi-paw-tisan, and it’s ready for political prime time.

All anyone has to do is adopt just one dog. Just one, OK? There’s a well-known saying among us dog rescuers and adopters: “Let each adopt one, until there are none.” Here’s another: “Adopting one dog won’t change the world, but surely the world will change for that one dog.”

The documentary does homeless dogs a great service by debunking the persistent myth that shelter animals are somehow defective. “People tend to think that when you get a rescue dog, you’re inheriting someone else’s problem, and that misconception has kept people from adopting,” Goosenberg Kent says. “I’m glad to be able to show how wrong that is. The real reason dogs get relinquished is people lose their job or move — it’s not because the dog is bad or misbehaving or sick. The dogs are victims of a change of circumstance. Most of the dogs in shelters are spectacular pets. Somebody was sad to give them up, but they’re here for, available to you, and 25 percent of them are purebreds. You can get virtually any dog you want at a shelter just by doing a little research online.” Resources such as Petfinder are most shelter animals’ only hope, she adds: “When they’re posted online, you can see how amazing they are, and how beautiful.”

If only the beautiful, fashionable people could be moved to see homeless dogs as a natural resource worth preserving, and a demographic worth standing up for.

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