Book Review: One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter, by Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer

Author’s Note: This is the first of three reviews of books published by the non-profit animal organization and book publisher No Voiconee Unheard, based in Santa Cruz, California. (The next reviews will be of Thought to Exist in the Wild and Ninety-Five. No Voice Unheard provided me with free review copies of these books.)

Anyone who has spent time an animal shelter, whether browsing for potential companions or volunteering or working, knows how difficult it can be to be face to face with those innocent victims of human abuse. For animal lovers in particular, shelters are both sources of comfort–at least there is someone out there offering the victims some shelter and hope for a better life–and anxiety–at the bleak lives endured by the inhabitants before and after they arrive…and the bleak reality about people that shelters manifest.

But what about the beauty of animal shelters? What about the unique, wonderful reality that is each individual animal that passes through a shelter’s doors? Amidst all the strong smells, noise, sadness, and fear of a shelter, there are individual living beings who want nothing more than to live happily. And what is more amazing, so many of them are willing to forgive humans despite their abuse…and even trust humans once again, giving them their love and loyalty.

It is this side of shelters, the living beauty of the animals who inhabit them, that Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer seek to show us in their splendid book, One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter. The authors spent one week in a shelter in northern California, meeting the many animals who lived and died there during that time. “This book is about those animals,” Leigh and Geyer write. “It is a testament to the faces we will never see and cannot imagine, because there are too many. It is a way to help us understand that the statistics are more than mere numbers: they are real lives, and they are utterly and completely at our mercy” (viii).

Some Facts about Animal Shelters

Of course, Leigh and Geyer have done their homework on the stark, disturbing realities of animal shelters and of the social conditions that make them necessary. The facts and figures they cite in the process of describing the underlying causes for animals’ homelessness are staggering. Here are just a few:

  • Six to eight million animals pass through American shelters each year.
  • Animals in shelters have only about a 50% chance of getting out alive: three to four million will be euthanized–amounting to over a quarter-million per month, 405 per hour, one per nine seconds.
  • Only 16% of lost dogs and 2% of lost cats are ever claimed from shelters by their guardians.
  • A female dog and her puppies can multiply up to 67,000 times in six years; a female cat and her kittens can produce over 400,000 offspring in seven years.
  • It is estimated that three to five hundred thousand purebred puppies are sold in pet stores each year, 90% of which come from “puppy mills.”
  • Only one animal in three has a home that lasts their entire lifetime.

The Lives Behind the Numbers

Nevertheless, One at a Time remains true to its title and focuses on the individuals who populate the shelters. It is not primarily an attack on the shelter system, on neglectful or abusive humans, on pet stores or puppy mills. No, Leigh and Geyer present the facts to us only to set us accurately in the context of the main characters, to ground us in the reality that these individuals must live with–or die in. The authors write, “In the shelter system, where high volumes of animals are handled in a short time, knowing each animal in depth is a luxury is seldom possible. Nonetheless, it is a luxury that every animal deserves: to be known, and respected, as the unique individual he is” (45).One_at12

It is impossible here to recount the many individuals we meet in One at a Time, sharing for such a brief time in their struggles, their successes, or their tragedies. Some are reunited with their guardians after being lost, some find new loving companion people after being abandoned or seized, and some are euthanized for any of a variety of reasons.

There are many animal friends to meet and make in the book, hinting at the myriad new friends and companions waiting for us in shelters across the country. Leigh and Geyer’s writing resonates with the true, touching depth of respect and love they have for each and every animal they encounter. This shows in so many ways, such as their use of “companion animals” instead of “pets”–implying a mutually beneficial, shared relationship, not ownership. Or it shows in their very grammar, when they use personal pronouns usually reserved for humans (he, she, who) for the more general and impersonal alternatives (it, that).

Leigh and Geyer have a unique gift: They can help us to bridge a gap of species, and take us into the lives of the animals they write about, and so create a strong sense of empathy, love, and respect. Yet theirs is not drippy, empty sentimentality; their writing is tight and efficient, relying not on rhetorical flourishes but well-crafted character descriptions coupled with an adept use of data.

The Myths of Shelters

One at a Time is even more impressive because it explodes some widely held myths about homeless animals before, during, and after their trips to shelters. For example, many people believe feral cats can thrive just fine without guardians. In fact, “They are subject to disease, parasites, malnutrition and starvation. Half the feral kittens born do not survive,” and a feral cat’s average lifespan is only three to five years–much less than the 15 or more years of an indoor companion cat (3).

Another example: Many view shelters as the location of choice for finding new animal companions, as well as a haven for lost animals to be reunited with their guardians. However, “only 20% of the dogs and cats in homes are adopted from animal shelters” (97); by and large, pet stores and commercial breeders still supply the vast majority of companion animals. And while many lost animals are reunited with their human companions, so many people simply give them up or, when they do come to claim them, balk at the fees required for reclamation ($20 in one case described here) and so turn the animal over to the shelter instead of paying.

And even worse, scores and scores of perfectly healthy, fully adoptable animals are euthanized for no more reason than a lack of cage space and an unavailability of willing fosters or adopters. All animals in shelters face this potential fate, not just those that are seriously ill or have behavioral problems that make them unadoptable. Leigh and Geyer tell us about one such dog, referred to as “B-10” because he lacked a name. He was “A perfectly nice, perfectly healthy dog. But completely anonymous. And then,” when euthanized because kennel stress led to aggressive behavior after two weeks in the shelter, he was “gone forever” (9).

Anyone who loves animals should read One at a Time. It is a sad book, yes, but this poignant sadness is more than compensated for by the touching beauty and joy of the individual animals we are introduced to–each a possible companion for some lucky person. Leigh and Geyer show us how animals give us so much, connecting us to the natural world and filling our lives with joy. They end their book with a question: “Can there be any doubt of what we owe them in return?” After we have read this book, the answer surely will not be a difficult one to give.


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  1. Nancy

    This is a book that will change the way people view animals in shelters. Abandoned pets are not just numbers but real creatures with sad stories to tell and always hope that their lives will be turned around by new caring individuals. Their stories will break your heart and lift your spirits to adopt from shelters. I have never read a book like this one, and it is the reality show of humane organizations. These women have done an incredible job on it, and this is a must read for every animal lover. It made a difference to me!

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    I agree with you 100%, Nancy, and thank you for your comment. The book also changed the way I think about animals. For instance, I am deliberately using “companion animals” instead of “pets” from now on, since it is truly so much more respectful. Heck, I would even change the grammar more and say “animal companions”…after all, we have many companions, all of whom can be equal in importance and value: plant companions, animal companions, and human (animal) companions!

  3. Dennis

    I haven’t read that book yet but it sounds like something I’d be interested in. Most people have no clue about puppy mills and no idea of the level of abuse and neglect that exists. Even with animal shelters, there are those that destroy animals and those that claim to be no-kill shelters. Some are, some aren’t… Anyway, I’ll look for this one next time I’m at B&N.

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