Who to save? Paralyzed in the season of giving.


My friend Martha is very good at saving dogs. Particularly those “less adoptable” types whose breed or health status or energy level is seen as undesirable. The effort requires hearty doses of both compassion and strategy, and Martha seems to have landed precisely the right ratio. She knows where to network, how to use social media, who to contact for support.

Tia is typical of the so-called misfits Martha falls for: a shy young Bully mix who’s been at the Santa Fe shelter for months now. A sweetie, Martha tells me, who gets along well with humans and canines both. But it was recently discovered Tia has a serious hip disorder, and in order for her to walk without pain, she likely needs surgery costing thousands of dollars.

Most shelters just don’t have the resources to put towards dogs like Tia. Most adopters aren’t looking for animals with costly medical issues attached. And so Martha finds herself in a predicament heartbreakingly unpleasant and wholly familiar. A situation that shelter staff, volunteers, and rescue workers encounter regularly. Should precious effort — time, money, energy — go into saving one dog? Or is it better to use that same reserve more democratically, spreading it out in hopes of saving many?

Start asking questions and the discussion quickly becomes uncomfortable, answers elusive. Should quantity be weighted most heavily when considering which animals to prioritize? Is one dog’s life equal to any other dog’s life? Does age, health, history, or adoptability come into play? Should it?

The sheer volume of lives at stake reduces this crisis to a numbers game. Shelters keep meticulous records: how many animals come in, how many go out. The higher the live-release rate, the more successful the shelter is deemed.

In theory — and in practice — I understand why these stats are recorded and how they can be analyzed and applied to save more lives. And in theory, I want to save the greatest number of animals possible. In practice, however, I’m not moved by numbers. I’m moved by stories. If there’s only room for one more dog at the shelter, I’d rather see it go to the big black twelve-year-old mutt who’s lived outside on a chain his whole life instead of the one-year-old French Bulldog who’s only known care and affection. In other words, I want the greatest efforts to go toward the animals who’ve had it the toughest.

That is, until another down-on-his-luck dog shows up at the Intake building. Because that’s when things get tricky. Soon we have not just one or two dogs in difficult circumstances, we have a shelter full of “less desirable” animals. Adoptions are slow, and resources are still limited. Overwhelming uncertainty, if not outright paralysis, sets in.

What do I do with my good intentions now? At what point, do I “give up” on the dog or cat (or insert species of choice) I’ve fallen in love with and refocus efforts on someone more savable? How do I measure suffering and deservedness in a shelter full of suffering and deserving animals?

This is probably the reason they have the practical, numbers-oriented person running the facility. The emotional, stories-oriented person should just keep doing the blogging. And people like my friend Martha, who can see the forest and the trees, should continue to follow their conscience, doing what feels right and true to them. We may be asking the above questions for quite some time to come, and we may never find satisfying answers.

For now, Tia’s fate is up in the air. Martha, along with several other dedicated shelter volunteers have finagled and networked and managed to buy the dog some time. Tomorrow she’ll see a new vet for a second opinion regarding her treatment options and expenses. And there are local rescues — and one fabulous daycare — who may be able to offer support of various kinds.

So if (unlike me) you’re a numbers person, forget the details of Tia’s story. Don’t stare at her photo, don’t fall in love with those big green eyes. Just remember there are thousands — no, millions — like her. And there are millions of us who can step in at any time and make a difference.

Interested in helping to ensure a bright future for Tia? Contact editor@dogtime.com.