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Book Review: Little Boy Blue & What’s a Dog For?
Two new books dig into important dog-world issues, but only one stands out

For years, the most under-reported story in the country has been about the veritable army of dedicated animal lovers who work tirelessly to rescue shelter dogs, and the fact that, despite their work, shelters are still putting down millions of dogs every year. Journalist Kim Kavin’s new book, Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth, takes on that story.

Kavin wrote about this subject after adopting her brindle hound-mix pup, Blue, who had been deemed “non-preferrable [sic] for adoption” by Person County Animal Shelter in North Carolina. Plucked from the shelter by a local rescue group just days before he was scheduled to die, Blue was one of the lucky ones. Like many other U.S. shelters, the Person County shelter kills dogs in gas chambers. After being saved, Blue was posted on Petfinder.com, fostered, transported north, and, shortly thereafter, he joined Kavin in New Jersey.

Her investigation kicked into high gear when she took Blue to her vet to find out what was behind his skin lesions. He didn’t come with much in the way of paperwork, and what little there was offered few clues as to what had really happened to him, both at the shelter and while he was being fostered. So Kavin, the intrepid reporter, went to North Carolina to find out for herself. As part of her quest, she interviewed shelter managers, rescuers and fosterers as well as the vet who neutered the pup. She learned how dogs (and cats) are treated in these rural areas, where it can seem that the shelters are busier killing animals than trying to get them adopted.

Her investigations expanded, and she includes uplifting interviews with those who manage successful shelter operations and spay/neuter programs, and a vast network of independent animal activists. But she also examines the underlying reasons why there still are gas chambers — here’s a hint: powerful factory-farm lobbyists play a role — and why seemingly pro-animal groups still oppose spay-and-neuter laws. This book is not a polemic, but it is definitely messagedriven; its main points focus on the need for people to become aware of the plight of shelter animals, and how grassroots support can fix this societal problem. She’s convinced that everyone can help by adopting dogs from shelters, fostering dogs and putting pressure on policymakers to improve shelter conditions and practices.

Kavin masterfully weaves her life with Blue into the storyline, and does a great job presenting all of this information in an engrossing and inspirational narrative that reads like a page-turner police procedural. This is a compelling, important book that should be read by everyone who loves dogs. Personally, I’m thrilled that someone with Kavin’s passion and skill took on this tough assignment.

In his first book, What’s a Dog For? magazine editor John Homans follows a slightly similar track, covering some of the same ground as Kavin. Stella, his southern rescue dog, is the springboard for his investigation. The book is subtitled The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend, which is a lot of worthy ground to cover. However, there will be few surprises for Bark readers. While on the whole this book is well written, it seems to have been haphazardly researched and fact-checked. Homans invested a lot of time traveling to the sources of much of what is happening in the field of canine research, but there are also serious, and telling, omissions.

The book was inspired by a 2010 article he wrote for New York magazine, where he is the editorial director; perhaps that’s why it seems dated. It doesn’t reference the more current findings in some fields, which could’ve easily been identified by a review of books and articles written by researchers and experts such as John Bradshaw, Pat Shipman and Mark Derr, to whom he gives short shrift.

Homans a l so procla ims Ray Coppinger’s hypothesis — that dogs self-domesticated by scavenging from early human garbage heaps — to be the “most widely accepted ‘first dog’ theory.” And that, despite evidence to the contrary, wolves follow the human “point” as well as dogs when they are allowed to do it unfettered by fence bars. Then he gets into the important subject of no-kill shelters, and the origination of this movement in San Francisco. However, he doesn’t mention that SF/ SPCA was able to make the shift to a no-kill facility because neighboring SF/ Animal Care & Control handled euthanization duty for the city. Sadly, this transition didn’t mean that “healthy animals that were euthanized in San Francisco dropped to zero,” as he notes.

And I really wish he had done a more thorough job investigating Rick Berman’s crusade against the HSUS. Berman is not just a simple “PR guy,” who runs HumaneWatch, but rather, a lobbyist for the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is financed by big ag and the restaurant industry. He got his start with money from Philip Morris, which he used to fight smoking bans in restaurants. The HSUS has been a vocal opponent of cruel factory-farming processes, and Berman has gone after them for it. His lies and half-truths have had a negative impact on that organization as well as on other humane groups.

There is also much to commend in this rather ambitious and entertaining book, and someone new to the dog world may benefit from its roadmap to becoming a well-versed caninelogist. But unlike Kavin’s book, which is more concentrated and focused, Homans’ tries to cover too much ground. Consequently, some important landmarks that deserved a more thorough treatment didn’t get it.

I’m glad the publishing world and writers are excited about the subject of dogs and our relationships with them. Because we’re still learning how much we don’t know about our best friends, the question “What’s a dog for?” remains a worthy subject for future investigation.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 71: Sep/Oct 2012
Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com
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