The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals

Katja M. Guenther / Stanford University Press / 312 pages 

As part of an ethnographic study, Katja Guenther—an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at UC Riverside—spent three years as a volunteer at a high-intake animal shelter in metropolitan Los Angeles. In the opening of The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, we are introduced briefly to Monster, a pit bull slated to die the next day. Guenther’s book examines Monster’s death—and the deaths of many other such animals—in the context of multiple social processes linked to societal attitudes concerning race, class, gender, ability, and species. 

Guenther approaches her subject matter through the lens of “critical animal studies,” a theoretical framework “that explains how ‘animal’ issues extend more broadly into the community and align with concerns that social justice advocates have in general” (Deckha, 2012). Guenther asserts that a rejection of authority would lead to a more equitable state for all that lived within it and that such a state could be achieved. Her philosophical rejection of authority—not merely authoritarianism, although that certainly would be included—leads her to certain recommendations that she defines as the Humane Communities Revolution (HCR). This would include (1) ending the practice of shelter killing, (2) reducing the precariousness of human and animals’ lives by better housing that permitted pets, (3) ending discrimination against pit bulls, (4) economic justice through wage increases and lowering of housing costs, (5) solutions for community cats that might include massive outdoor catteries or relocation of cats to less bird-dense areas, (6) more transparency by shelters, including having volunteers involved in policy-making decisions, and 
(7) representation of animals on shelter boards.

Re-imagining the ideal with creative and novel approaches can and should be employed. At the same time, the actual means to achieve these idealistic ends must be considered. Guenther notes that one of HCR’s goals—elimination of shelter killing—has had remarkable success in the last few years; 2018 marked the first year that under 1 million animals were killed in shelters nationwide. Most of her other recommendations, however, would require considerable political clout—more public funding for shelters and community cats, pressure on insurance companies to drop their exclusion of pit bulls, and economic justice. She is silent on any concrete plans to achieve these goals. 

Her insight into the dynamic between management, staff, and volunteers at an animal shelter and her proposal that volunteers be accorded more access to decision making are worthy of serious discussion. However, her characterization of animal shelters as sometimes “hostile arms of the state” and her idea that “the mandate of spaying and neutering is also a powerful form of policing the bodies of companion animals and the animal practices of animal guardians” will be off-putting to many and may interfere with her insights being considered more broadly.