, , , , , , , , ,

I think it was a malamute, and it was in our shelter.

Did I mention that I used to work in a conventional Humane Association? For those that haven’t already read between the lines, this means I worked in a will-kill shelter. So, this dog that had just landed in a dangerous place.

Of course a pure breed of most any kind will generally adopt itself in due time, and we were fortunate to have enough room to give animals plenty of time most of the year. But space was tight when this guy showed up in our kennels. The dog wasn’t in much danger, but the kennel-space he took-up could mean the difference for one of the dogs who was. Keeping him at the shelter, at least at that particular time, could well mean some dog with less pedigree would go down.

A few minutes of googling and a few phone calls later I found myself talking to a woman who ran a rescue facility devoted to malamutes. After introducing myself I told this woman that we had one in our shelter and asked if she had room to take it off our hands.

A moment passed and then she began to cry; “I really don’t, but I don’t want you to put him down.”

It turns out this lady was keeping about 40 dogs herself, which is a lot to do without a paid staff or a dedicated facility. She might have had some help, but this woman was no professional, at least I didn’t think so. Like most rescue organizations and foster-care providers, I imagine this lady was doing this on the side, and I had little doubt that it was eating up her savings right along with every moment of spare time she didn’t really have. It was a labor of love, and her cracking voice told me just how much that love had already cost her.

I didn’t want to supply the dog that broke this woman’s back (or bank account), and it wasn’t necessary, at least not with a pure-breed (and malamutes are gorgeous dogs). A few more phone calls would land a home for this guy. And that is exactly what happened in this instance.

But that cracking voice on the other side of the line betrayed a stress common to those in the animal welfare business. Most anyone working in the shelter industry has more than their share of critters, some far too many, and every day such workers face the question of whether or not to take one more home. Even the hard-asses of our shelter took an animal home from time to time. One of my co-workers had a real menagerie in her small house, and with four furry room-mates in a mobile home I was pushing the envelope on excess myself.

It can be a very tough call, knowing that you can take at least one pair of sad eyes out of the racket and give it a loving home, but that you can’t take them all. So, just how far will you go, and how do you make that decision?

The part where reality seriously twists the knife for me is this. The line from what you can do about such things to what you can’t do is actually seamless. You would never know this from the way people talk about it. Asked to consider adoption, folks would tell me that they were at their limit or they would say; “I just can’t take another one home,” etc. But the truth is that most of them really could take one more in if they wanted to.

What people are really referring to with all this talk of hard limits is something more along the lines of excessive costs and overly onerous burdens. People speak of absolute limits because the implication that one really could do otherwise is disconcerting. It’s a damned terrible thing to think about (especially for someone who cares enough to get into the animal welfare business); but the reality is that long before you reach the moment you really cannot do one more thing personally to help, you will reach a moment when you simply don’t want to, the moment at which the cost is higher than you are willing to pay. Even with enormously high stakes such as the death of a companion animal, the point at which most of us will say ‘no’ falls well short of the moment when we really are at the limits of our ability to do something about it.

People simply aren’t machines; we don’t reach a clear limit and then go off with a great big clank; instead we accumulate negatives and increase our risks until one day we make the decision to stop, …and maybe take a step back.

Those that don’t? Well maybe they go clank after all.

I once knew a young woman who cared for forty something cats, countless birds, squirrels, snakes, lizards, dogs, etc. Her life was devoted to the care of animals, and if she could help, she would. In this woman’s case, perhaps the moment when she would say ‘no’ really was the moment at which helping was no longer possible. She was a one-woman shelter without a non-profit status (much less a staff). …and she was one serious illness away from becoming the next hoarding case on the news.

I can only hope I am wrong about that.

But of course the issue is not at all confined to animal welfare practices. What got me thinking about this were some comments in an article on Chick-Fil-A by Jennifer McCreight (the Blag Hag). the piece shows nowhere near the same level of stress that I heard coming through the phone that one day at the animal shelter, but for just a paragraph or so it occurred to me that she was dealing with the same sort of problem.

I could originally understand why someone wouldn’t boycott an organization that they disagree with politically. I bet there are things I buy that support things I hate, mostly because I don’t know any better, partially because I can’t financially afford to boycott everything.

These words resonate for me, both because they reminded me of the agonizing decisions folks used to make at the animal shelter, and because it reflects another sort of problem that I think about from time to time.

Suffice to say that the question of guilt-by-consumption has crossed my mind a time or two. I wonder how many of my clothes have been made in sweat-shops, how much the animals I eat have suffered, or whether any number of corporations I have patronized might have played a role in this or that political atrocity? …just to name a few thoughts that occur to me off-hand. Reading Jen McCreight’s discussion, it struck me that the issue of consumer politics really does raise the same dilemma that used to haunt me so much working at the shelter.

I am well aware that many of the products I would otherwise purchase are associated with activities I want no part of, but the question is what am I prepared to do? I can of course choose to deny my dollars to some folks in specific instances, and I can even seek out more information so as to identify more of these cases than I will get through the natural flow of information coming my way. But somewhere along the line I will choose to buy something the production of which involves real suffering by someone (or something) who doesn’t deserve it. I would love to believe that I will do so because I simply can’t afford to do otherwise, but that just isn’t literally the case, at least not in the particulars. If I, just like McCreight, cannot quite opt out of all the politically suspect transactions in my life, I can almost always do without this one or that one.

I could go on to discuss other examples, but hopefully the point is made. People typically describe our commitments in terms of limitations and boundaries, but our actual judgements are made in terms of priorities and opportunity costs.

Deciding the extent of our personal commitments to a given cause may not always be as painful as it was for that lady running a malamute rescue (and truth be told I think it is exceptionally difficult for a lot of folks working in animal welfare) but it is often a bit discomfiting. Our language reflects this tension.

…or rather, it pointedly doesn’t.