The Little Shelter That Could

The schedule for our recent weekend trip from Tennessee to visit our son Marcus in New York City was packed with all kinds of special activities: meals in good restaurants, expeditions to museums and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, a night at the opera. But what I looked forward to most was visiting the animal shelter in a remote, tough part of Brooklyn where Marcus volunteers as a dog walker.

I’m also an active volunteer dog walker with three years’ service at our busy Tennessee municipal shelter, and was eager to see how this shelter was run, and to meet the dogs Marcus had been enthusiastically telling me about.

On Sunday afternoon we took an endless Uber ride from his apartment near Brooklyn’s Prospect Park southward into the center of the borough and then a long way eastward, into the neighborhood of East New York, reputedly one of the highest-crime areas in New York City.

The area where the shelter is located is a combination of industrial and residential. Marcus explained to me that when he takes the dogs out for a walk, he follows a prescribed route of a one-block circuit of the street around the facility. As we approached our destination I saw the signs of urban blight familiar to me from my former 34-year residency in New York City: chainlink fences with trash blown against them, debris from cars that had been either vandalized or smashed in wrecks, scrubby weeds fighting through crumbling concrete. I couldn’t help comparing this dog-walking environment with the large grassy exercise yards and shady woodland path that our shelter’s dogs are privileged to enjoy.

Unfortunately we had a letdown in store when we arrived at the shelter and met the volunteer coordinator. Marcus had cleared my visit with her but had misunderstood the basis on which I would be allowed access. This facility, the woman explained, had a a strict protocol that required all dog walkers – or even anyone who wanted to tag along with a walker — to go through the shelter’s training program. I tried to plead my fairly extensive experience, but I was regretfully but firmly denied. I understood, though it was a big disappointment.

My options were to hang out and browse through the adoption wards while Marcus walked his quota of dogs. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and I didn’t want to stand in the way of the animals getting a break from their confinement. Neither did I want to deprive my son; he had had a stressful morning in his professional role as an IT specialist, dealing with a client’s gnarly server problem. Spending time with friendly dogs was sure to relax him and lift his mood, as it always did for me.

So I set about exploring the place and seeing whether there were any policies and practices that I might want to try to bring back to Northside Animal Shelter.


The facility was old and cramped, but clean, with bright paint and cheerful dog and cat paintings on the walls. The main adoption floor for large dogs had maybe forty kennels, each about 2/3 the size of ours, big enough for a raised bed and water and food bowls, but not much else. A volunteer couldn’t go into the run with the dog, as we often did at our shelter. Each enclosure had a detachable opaque panel on the lower part of the gate to block the dogs’ views of the other animals in facing kennels, which can provoke aggressive reactions. We had tried similar barriers but dispensed with them, feeling that it made the kennels claustrophobic and kept prospective adopters from being able to see the dogs easily.

The majority of the Brooklyn dogs were, not surprisingly, pit bulls. Our shelter has a great many (much beloved) pitties as well, with hounds running a distant second among identifiable breeds.

As I passed the kennels, some dogs jumped up, barking frantically and trying to lick or nip my fingers through the mesh of their gates, and others just lay on their raised beds, shutting out all stimulus through sleep. As in our shelter, each kennel gate had a cup secured to it that held treats, and I gave biscuits to several eager takers.

Such an environment, with its noise and confinement and the proximity of other dogs, was bound to wind the animals up. This is true of any shelter. Marcus had told me the week before our visit that, as he was chatting with a staff member who was taking a large dog named Sadie out of her kennel, Sadie suddenly lunged at him and bit him, hard, in the lower abdomen. He showed me the yellow and purple bruise, about two inches long and an inch high. I shuddered to think what would have happened if Sadie had struck some eight or ten inches lower.

“What happened to Sadie?” I asked him. I thought to myself that similar behavior by one of our Northside dogs might well have resulted in a humane and prompt dispatch across the Rainbow Bridge. But Sadie had simply been demoted from a Level 1 dog – safe for all volunteers to handle – to a Level 2 dog, requiring staff or experienced volunteer handling.

I stood at a distance watching as Marcus skillfully leashed up Chaco, a blue pit bull, and took him out. I then inspected the written materials hanging on clipboards on each kennel. They included the animal’s official behavioral assessment form, and log sheets that volunteers filled out after walking each dog, giving the date and any behavior they had observed on the walk, such as pulling, or lack of, on the leash; reactivity to bikes, cars, motorcycles, squirrels; and any special ability such as knowing “sit” or offering a paw. Poignantly, some of the long-term residents had as many as ten of these forms with multiple entries on each. I thought that these log sheets were a great idea, potentially very helpful to new and uncertain volunteers, and useful as well to adopters. Chalk up one idea to bring back home.

Dog walkers' daily log. Great info in easy to absorb form.

Dog walkers’ daily log. Great info in easy to absorb form.

Curious, I went to the kennel of Sadie, the dog who had nailed Marcus, and looked at the dog walkers’ reports on her. “Super sweet once you get her out,” but “Tough walking her past the other kennels, lots of barking and lunging.” There was no mention of her attack. I was guardedly glad that she was being given another chance.

When I had been there about an hour, the volunteer coordinator came out to talk to me, maybe feeling badly that I had come all this way and not been able to accompany Marcus on his walks. She was about forty, stylish in jeans and high boots, with long dark hair and dramatic eye makeup. I made a note to consider upping my shelter fashion game from my usual beat-up sunhat, paw-stained jeans, faded volunteer t-shirt, mucky sneakers, and belt pack stuffed with poop bags, treats and squeaky toy.

She told me that she had volunteered at this shelter for fifteen years while she pursued a career in business, and then decided to make this her life’s work. We compared notes on how many animals her shelter and ours admitted; our adoption efforts and special events; how our respective organizations worked with rescue groups to relocate animals to areas where they were more likely to be adopted. We also alluded to the joys and heartaches that all animal care workers know so well: so many needy pets; so few ideal or even possible homes. I complimented her on what I had seen in her facility and cheerfully fessed up to my intention to steal some of their ideas. I felt, but didn’t say, that they were doing the very best they could under challenging conditions.

Marcus came out then, having finished his shift. He definitely looked more cheerful than when we had arrived. We bid good-bye to the woman, and walked out into the November twilight where a beautiful pink sky rose above the dingy cityscape.

On our way through the parking lot we came upon a distressing sight – a young woman walking toward us, carrying a motionless animal on a flat piece of cardboard. She was sobbing, and as she drew near I saw that the creature was a cat, apparently dead, with blood trickling from its mouth.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and gestured toward the building we had just left, trusting that, like all good animal shelters, it was a place where the needy, the abandoned, the broken, and the sorrowing would find help and comfort.

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