Survival of the Cutest
Thinking about Noah while facing hope and heartbreak in the kennel
Most biblical stories present us with emotions we’ll never experience. Most of us will never be called, like Abraham, to take a knife to their firstborn’s throat. Most of us, one hopes, will never find ourselves in an intoxicated, incestuous mess like Lot. And most of us will know nothing of Job’s existential pains. But Noah? Noah we know.
As a lifelong advocate of animal rights, I’ve often found myself thinking about what I would have done had God commanded me to build an ark and load it with a pair of beasts from each species. How would I choose which zebras are worthy of survival? How would I determine the world’s last remaining elephants? The Bible says little about Noah’s methodology, but it hardly needs to elaborate. We know just how Noah, most likely, picked his critters: If he’s anything like us, he selected the most adorable ones and left the rest to the deluge.
And if Noah hadn’t, I certainly did. Eight years ago, my wife and I boarded the train to one of Brooklyn’s most struggling neighborhoods to visit one of the city’s most struggling animal shelters. With little by way of staff or budget, the Center for Animal Care and Control takes in nearly 41,000 cats and dogs each year; more than 30,000 of them, Lisa and I knew, would be put to death. Which made the two of us mini-Noahs: Pacing the linoleum floors, looking at the sad eyes peering from behind the metal bars of plastic cages, we had come to carry one animal to safety and leave the rest to die.
But which one? Originally, we were interested in Jimmy, a beautiful and wild shepherd mix, a young adult dog with a lovely temperament and mercurial energy. We took him for a walk in the center’s parking lot. He jumped around, and we were worried that his size and disposition would make life in our small apartment a bad fit for humans and dog alike. Holding back the tears, we returned Jimmy to the center’s volunteer, who proceeded to ask if we were interested in seeing the puppies.
The puppies! Few words can lift up a dog lover’s spirit faster. We were led to a small room, where three tiny animals were kept in three tiny crates. We ignored the Chihuahua. We found him funny-looking. We asked to see a furball named Jerry—some Akita in him, maybe—and an unnamed female with a short snout and big, floppy ears. Both animals, no older than three months, were taken to the Getting Acquainted Room, a fluorescent-lit joint with an institutional feel and floors streaked with urine and grime. We watched as the puppies played, Jerry wildly and the female, shy, with much reluctance. And all we could think about was which one to choose.
Call it the Noah Conundrum. With little way of knowing the animal’s true nature, all we had to go on was looks, which leads to a sort of evolutionary twist: the survival of the cutest. We picked the female—she was sweeter—and walked out with a new dog and a lingering sense of guilt. By rescuing our puppy—we named her Molly Dog Leibovitz—we were leaving behind Jimmy, Jerry, and all the others whose ears were not quite so floppy, whose tails were not bushy, whose fur was slightly ratty. We were leaving behind animals equally in need of rescue and equally capable of love, and the only criteria we really applied was the same shallow judgment we would abhor if applied to evaluating human beings. And yet, we told ourselves in an effort to stave off the heartbreak, we did everything we could have done.
And someone, we were thrilled to learn later, had the others in mind, the animals unchosen and abandoned. Shortly after we adopted Molly, a private-public partnership—the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals—was formed, bringing together more than 160 animal-rescue groups and shelters to work on behalf of the city’s homeless animals. The story of Noah wasn’t lost on these folks: Through the Wheels of Hope program, the alliance operates a modern-day ark, a white van emblazoned with a paw print that collects animals from shelters, where they’re likely to be put to death unless adopted rapidly, and drives them to other, more accommodating surroundings.
The program and others like it have made a tremendous difference in the lives of tens of thousands of animals. In 2001, 74 percent of all homeless animals captured in New York City were killed; by 2009, the number dropped to 33 percent. The alliance also works to make the lives of shelter animals more comfortable, encouraging people to donate towels, pillows, and anything else that might make life in a cage more bearable.