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What Happens to Unwanted Dogs 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."