I watch Animal Cops. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, and I’m used to the frowns of consternation. “Why?” my friends ask, even my husband. “Why would you watch that?” I ask my husband the same thing about Futurama, but he argues that it’s not just a matter of taste. “Animal Cops is painful and torturous,” he says. “Why do you do that to yourself?”
It is true that at least one animal per show dies or is euthanized for behavioral problems. It’s an interesting choice that the show’s producer makes to include these cases. You might think that they would include only the situations where there’s a happy ending. Knowing what I know about animal rescue, however, I surmise that there’s an insistence on the part of show participants that some level of realism be maintained. Yes, many of the animals are shown at show’s end in loving, new “forever” homes. Yes, these often produce smiles and giggles we might deem sentimental.
Yet I don’t think these shows are sentimental. They look too closely at depravity to be sentimental. I love the hard faces of the animal cops, whether they be in Houston, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, or Miami. They are tough, and these are reality shows where reality is not entirely sidelined, though, of course, the various cops featured are carefully selected for their personalities. My belief in their heroism is engineered, no doubt, and I’m sure they all have flaws and petty squabbles that aren’t shown on TV.
Still, the camera follows their eyes as they examine pit bulls ripped to shreds by dog-fighting, or fifty or more cats living in inch-deep feces in a tiny house, or a horse walking on the top of its swollen and infected hoof. On one call I remember, a dog had been reported injured, with a broken leg, but the truth was it couldn’t stand because it had been weakened by months of starvation. In Miami, there was a case of a young man slaughtering pet cats and bringing their sliced-up bodies back to their owners’ yards for display. Frequently there are cases of dogs that are brought back to health only to fail behavioral tests and be euthanized. One of the behavioral experts tears up every time she has to condemn a dog to death. She knows, as I know, that most of these dogs got that way through abuse and could even yet be saved if there were time and resources to devote to it. But our attitude toward pets in the U.S. is schizoid—we treat our own like family but condemn thousands to die every year for lack of resources.
I face these pictures every now and then on TV, but the animal cops face these scenarios every day. Their weariness is often visible in the faces. Charles Jantzen, a chief cruelty investigator in Houston, often wears, along with his cowboy hat, the pointed, drawn expression of a haunted man as he toils in the Texas heat to round up dogs, cats, horses, chickens, even emus. Lisa Yambrick is sometimes brought to tears by the limits of the law in Miami, which doesn’t allow her to take every animal in need. In Detroit, Debby MacDonald has a head shake like no other; she explains repeatedly to the camera and to ignorant pet owners what needs to be done in no uncertain terms. Mike Dowe, also a Detroit investigator, has one of the softest voices I’ve ever heard. He seems continually amazed at what he sees and works gently with each animal he encounters. What a beautiful sensitivity this man has in the face of all this disgusting cruelty.
I also remember the time when I did volunteer animal rescue work myself (for two organizations, Centre County Paws and A New Beginning). I remember the kitten that a woman brought in right after she had stopped to pick it up off the highway after watching a man throw it out of a car window while the car drove 45 mph down the road. It was skinned all over and had a broken leg, but lived and thrived. I remember the dog that a woman dropped off one day, saying that her husband would kill it if she brought it back home again; he killed it less directly, for the dog was so afraid of and violent toward men that we had to have it put down, something my organization was seldom called on to do. I also remember the dozens of references I checked to make sure our pets were going to sound homes.
I have come to the conclusion that it is probably the most useful and meaningful work I’ve ever done in my life. I intend to get back to it when circumstances allow. But I would never have the strength to do it every day or to handle these worst-case scenarios all the time. So perhaps I watch these shows because I admire something in these cops that I don’t have. I share with them a devotion to animals, but not the brutal strength they have. I have art, which is not nothing, not by any means, but in these days when I question my future, I wonder about the relative merits of choices I could have made. A life saved is a life saved, after all.
Animal Cops is not art, of course. The shows harp on the same simple messages over and over again: these organizations depend heavily on donations, so please give; if you acquire animals, you must take care of them responsibly; and people who don’t take care of their animals are criminals. The shows do, however, have one thing in common with literature: they demonstrate the vast array of evil and just plain old messed-up-ness in the human race. The dramas that play out in the court scenes, where people often protest the seizure of starving or injured animals left unfed and untreated, is instructive if not literary. They often feel that they have done nothing wrong, and they often have befallen terrible times themselves. Sometimes it feels odd that someone can step in to help the animals, but not the degraded people in their ignorance, poverty, and callousness. That, I suppose, is what social services and art are for. We can only wish that they would work better and also receive the resources to do their work. Our country is schizoid not only about the animals, but the humans, divided so between fortunate and un-.