Ellen, the dog bullies and me

I know how Ellen DeGeneres feels: My adventures with private dog shelters convinced me that years of rescuing animals sometimes turns people into self-righteous tyrants.

Published October 19, 2007 4:30PM (EDT)

There has been a lot of gawking over Ellen DeGeneres' teary breakdown, including speculation over whether she has finally lost her doughnuts. After all, what kind of a person would rail against a dog rescue organization, of all things? Who would incite mass talk-show viewer rage against the kind and charitable souls who pluck homeless dogs off the streets and find them homes? What kind of a monster is DeGeneres, anyway? And who breaks down like that, on national TV, over a dog?

But when I happened to catch Ellen weeping into her hands on Tuesday, I knew exactly how she felt. My personal adventures with the dog rescue organizations of greater Los Angeles have led me to believe that such shelters are often run by the kinds of people who don't know how to play nicely with others. Fueled by truly awful firsthand accounts of animal abuse and abandonment and horrified countless times by owners who move or change their minds and drop their doggies off to die alone at the pound, these charitable souls gradually develop into self-righteous mouth breathers and priggish control freaks.

It makes perfect sense, really. You start with people who love animals more than other people. (And look, I've teetered close to this line myself, usually in the wake of a very bad boyfriend and in the company of a very good doggy.) You take these people and charge them with rescuing animals from mean or callous owners. Then you ask them to find good, loving people to take in each animal, ensuring that they're loved dearly henceforth. Suspicions will be stoked, hurt feelings will ensue, and every failed adoption will prove, once again, just how deeply disappointing most human beings can be.

It's not like the shelter owners and volunteers are wrong about that. But given that so many dogs are killed in L.A. alone every day, you'd think that volume of lives saved would be the main goal. For many volunteers, though, the work is much, much more personal than that. They don't want to save every dog in L.A., they just want to find Fifi her perfect forever home.

Which explains why, when I approached several rescue shelters in search of a young, playful companion for my dog, Potus, two years ago, I was instead led, time after time, to the dog they wanted me to adopt. Even though I made it clear I was looking for a dog under 1 year of age, I was repeatedly introduced to the likes of Oscar, an 11-year-old, three-legged basset hound with diabetes and cataracts. As I gazed guiltily at poor old Oscar, the volunteer would explain helpfully that he needed only several shots of insulin and eyedrops daily, plus special food and dialysis three times a week. If I dared to protest that I was really interested in a younger dog I saw on the shelter's Web site, the volunteer would invariably give me a withering look, as if I'd just told him I was looking for a good guard dog who wouldn't make a fuss about being chained to a post in my front yard in the dead of winter.

Now granted, we all want Oscar to find a home, and we applaud the good, generous soul who is bighearted enough to take him in and shell out thousands for his dialysis and his special food. But a tiny voice in my head still wonders why shelters should spend big piles of cash to get Oscar his dialysis when hundreds of healthy young dogs are dying in the pound every day. Yes, it's true, you wouldn't apply such cruel logic to human beings, but then, hundreds of healthy children and teenagers aren't sent to the gallows each day.

Increasingly thwarted in my search for the right healthy, young dog, I eventually encountered a volunteer who encouraged me to e-mail her so she could contact other shelter coordinators she knew to see if they had an appropriate dog for me. Soon, the saddest cases were flooding into my in box: Willy, the charming 8-year-old, half-deaf basset mix who was very depressed at the loss of his owner, but who was sure to cheer up with the right mix of love and elaborate hand signals; Baxter, the 10-year-old lab with hip dysplasia who was very possessive with toys, but who would otherwise make an awesome companion for my 2-year-old dog. I wrote a very apologetic note to one shelter owner, explaining that I was being a little picky because I was looking for the perfect companion for my dog. She responded with a diatribe, insisting that there was no "perfect" dog for me out there, and that it was absolutely impossible to predict how two dogs will get along over time, even if they hit it off at first.

Discouraged but determined to find the right dog, I visited a local shelter to meet a Hurricane Katrina survivor -- let's call her "Heidi." Heidi was in a small cage with a larger dog who was clearly tormenting her constantly -- she kept moving away with her tail between her legs, but the other dog wouldn't leave her alone. She even had some scratches on her face and body. When I mentioned this to the volunteer, she said, "Oh, they're just playing." (The other dog might have been playing, but Heidi definitely wasn't having any fun at all.)

Then the volunteer noticed the metal choke collar on my dog, with its blunt prongs that turn in to keep her from pulling on the leash constantly. "If you give us that collar, we can give you another, more humane collar to replace it."

"That's OK, this collar works well for me," I answered politely. My dog was leash-aggressive after being attacked by off-leash dogs as a puppy. The prong collar doesn't hurt her, but reminds her that I'm in charge when I'm walking her by a little yapper and keeps her from bounding out of my hands and into traffic to chase a fat squirrel.

The volunteer got a somber look and left. Another volunteer appeared. "There's no reason that dog needs an inhumane collar like that."

"It's not inhumane at all, actually. Plenty of trainers recommend them," I replied lightly. "The Dog Whisperer himself told me it was a good choice for her!" It was true. I had shown Cesar Milan the collar, and he gave it his stamp of approval.

"I'm not sure we're going to be able to let you adopt one of our dogs if you use a collar like that."

I could've lied and said I wouldn't use the same collar on Heidi, but it didn't feel right to brush off the concern. More volunteers appeared and gathered in a group a few feet away, whispering and pointing at me, the heartless dog abuser, and my poor, suffering dog (who was bounding around the courtyard, happily playing with Heidi). Finally, one of the volunteers came over. "I'm sorry, we can't let you adopt one of our dogs in good conscience, knowing that you'd use that collar."

Driving home, I wasn't sure if Heidi was the one for us, but I felt bad for her, spending another day in that cage being harassed, while some other lucky dog would enjoy a life of daily 3-mile runs, a nice grassy yard, an affectionate big sister and an owner who spent most of her time at home. The shelter workers were so sure that they were right and so consumed by the rules they'd set that they'd missed the big picture.

The next day, I woke up angry. Why deal with these people at all? I could go get a dog straight from the source. After all, most dog shelters picked up their dogs at the municipal animal control centers in the area. The private dog shelter where I found Potus had rescued her from a county-run facility just a week before I paid it $500 for her. When the shelter gave me her papers, it included her pound-issued mug shot, which I had seen online the week before. I had considered making the drive to the pound, but worried that she'd already have been executed by the time I got there, and I didn't think I could stomach it. Plus, I was told repeatedly that these were terrible, sad places that no one with a heart could stand to visit.

Nevertheless, this time I steeled myself for the horrors I might see and drove down to the north central L.A. pound and met a pointer mix puppy who licked my hands through the bars of her cage, scampered around happily in the hallway when I visited with her, and then jumped about 3 feet in the air when she saw the worker who passed out meals at dinnertime. She looked like the one, so I took a chance and told the shelter that I wanted her. No one asked me about the approximate square footage of my home or yard. No one grilled me about my training methods. No one urged me to consider working with a sweet little shepherd mix with a history of biting when cornered. Granted, this was also where my neighbor who keeps his dog in a tiny, filthy area of his yard probably picked him up. But here I was, in the San Quentin of the dog world, and everyone was incredibly happy for my puppy, which one of the employees told me had to be given up because the landlord wouldn't let the previous owners keep her. "Isn't that sad?" he asked.

It was sad, but her story was about to change. Bean proved to be the perfect dog for us: happy, energetic, playful, loving and submissive enough to accept Potus as her big sister.

So when Ellen DeGeneres cried on national TV because her dog had been kidnapped, I didn't think she was overreacting to the fate of her dog, I thought she was expressing anger and frustration at people who preferred to enforce their rigid policies in a situation that clearly called for flexibility and compassion. Once a dog has found a happy home, is it really appropriate to march in and decree that small dogs should never, ever live with children under the age of 14? (Mutts and Moms, the rescue group that gave Ellen the dog, had arbitrarily deemed this the appropriate age of child to pair with a small dog, and the two children at Ellen's hairdresser's home were 11 and 12.) And then shelter reps show up at the family's house with animal control officers and cops, claiming that they're there to do a home check, only to grab the dog and leave? Why create such a traumatic scene just to enforce policies that have nothing to do with the best-case scenario for the dog or the people in question?

Of course no sane human would think that the shelter owner, Marina Baktis, deserves the death threats and harassment she has endured since Ellen hit the airwaves. And the slightly menacing phone call from Ellen's publicist that Baktis allegedly received Thursday didn't help Ellen's case much. Even so, Baktis' statements so far have been pretty telling. Her lawyer, Keith A. Fink, says his client "is not going to be bullied around by the Ellen DeGenereses of the world." And in People magazine, Baktis herself is quoted as saying, "Celebrities, you know, they get preferential treatment. They have lots of money. They go into a restaurant they get a table. And so you know, this contract was breached. It was breached. So people need to understand when you enter a binding legal agreement that you can't just go, 'And here you go, I don't want you.'"

Is that really what this is about? Because that has nothing to do with the dog. Countless unwanted dogs die in shelters every day in Los Angeles, and this woman is wasting her time and energy swooping into someone's home and grabbing a dog out of a crying child's arms, just to prove a point? Remind me what that point was, again?

Ellen's tears didn't look hysterical to me. That situation would've left me shaking and sobbing, too. Would I have merely been concerned for the poor child, missing her doggy, as Ellen claimed? Maybe. But I also might've been depressed by the way doing something kind and generous can turn people into scoldy, long-suffering nitpickers and self-righteous tyrants. I'm not saying that it's not understandable. If I rescued abused animals all day, I'd probably become a self-righteous tyrant, too. But it's something to consider before you go looking for a new pet. Next time, maybe Ellen should go to the pound, and skip the interlopers.

While this doggy scandal is sure to disappear as quickly as it appeared, one hopes some of the more rigid shelter owners and volunteers will reconsider their strict adherence to their policies when bending the rules slightly serves the greater good and avoids tears and bad feelings all around. When you see a family that clearly loves a pet, let sleeping dogs lie on their 300-thread-count sheets and move on. There's another sweet little mutt on death row who'll thank you dearly for it.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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