Leslie Smith: Closing Time at the Animal Shelter

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The pandemic-inspired rush to adopt a pet has slackened and now the shelters are again filling up. Leslie Smith has this Perspective.

It’s 4 p.m. Saturday; closing time at the municipal shelter where I’m a volunteer dog walker. The kennel attendant comes around to shut off the lights, but because it’s mid-summer, one hardly notices the difference.

If you have to wind up at a shelter, you could do worse than this place. The population is creeping back up to pre-COVID levels, but most of the time, we manage to get dogs out twice a day for walks or playgroup. These short reprieves from life in a kennel help break up the boredom and loneliness, but they’re no substitute for life in a home.

Though it’s hours before the sun even thinks about setting, the day is over for the animals here. They know the chance of one last walk or another belly rub is now zero. I sneak a look at my current favorite, a roly-poly pit bull named Princess, and her eyes follow me until I’m out of sight of her kennel. It strikes me how painfully never-ending it must feel, the wait until late morning for the shelter to reopen — and contact with another living being.

My hope is that for all the misery it’s wrought, the pandemic ultimately helps us understand how devastating isolation can be for any social, sentient animal. That for all of us, sheltering in place should be a temporary state. And I hope that as awareness about pet adoption spreads, so too does education about what it means to bring an animal into your home — and the time and effort it takes to keep that pet thriving.

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At most shelters in the Bay Area, staff and volunteers do their very best. But shelters are meant to be safety nets, not replacements for life with a family. They can be terribly lonely environments for dogs and cats who, just like us, are social creatures.

At 4 in the afternoon, sun on my neck, Saturday still feels young. My family is waiting for me at home, and we’ll spend the rest of the day together. But I will be back here tomorrow.

And just then, it occurs to me: On Sundays, the shelter closes at 3 p.m.

With a Perspective, I’m Leslie Smith.

Leslie Smith is a writer living in Oakland and a fan of pigs, pigeons, pit bulls and the otherwise misunderstood.