The always-welcome Ed Philp returns from the dense thicket of German tax law to the cuddlier, fuzzier realm of cute, furry animals.
Ed Philp here, with another entry (thanks Andrew!). This week my girlfriend and I visited the Düsseldorf Tierheim (animal shelter). In theory, we were looking for a second cat. Since we are out of the house often, we thought our present cat could use some companionship. Also, we brought our cat from North America to Germany, and even after being here for two years, her German skills are still miserable.
Having visited animal shelters in the US and Canada, I was expecting rows of small cages with unhappy animals condemned to death in the space of a few short weeks if not adopted. Most municipal shelters in North America have a time limit for keeping animals – thousands of healthy dogs and cats (most of them abandoned, sick or aged) are put to sleep every year for want of an owner. Not so in Düsseldorf.
The Tierheim is located on a gigantic piece of vaguely rural property just outside of the city in a pleasant forest and residential neighborhood. Cats have their own building with seven separate spacious rooms filled with boxes, toys, expansive windows and an abundance of fresh air. Even this house, home to approximately 20 cats and staffed by a friendly woman who could rattle off the cats’ names and special needs, was quiet and smelled only of clean air and fresh coffee. As a student, I lived in worse conditions than these cats. The cats themselves were all healthy, mostly friendly, varied in age from a few months to 12 years (in North America, older animals are put to sleep first, since it is much harder to find homes for them), and all appeared to be very well taken care of. Some had been there for six months or more. When we asked if it would be acceptable to name a cat we were contemplating “Heinz” (her original name was Molly), we were cheerfully told that was a decision that would be up to the cat.
The dog area of the Tierheim took up the largest amount of space. Each dog has its own pen with an indoor and outdoor enclosure. The Tierheim has numerous small fenced gardens in which each dog was played with or trained each day by the committed and abundant staff. The Tierheim offered a vast array of benefits along with the adoption of its dogs, including coupons for free food, training sessions, a waiver of adoption fees and a medical inspection. Virtually all of the dogs were large aggressive breeds such as Staffordshire Terriers. Many appeared sullen or unfriendly and often barked or snarled when they saw people. Obviously it is tough to find proper homes for these ones; many of them had been abandoned.
The Tierheim is also home to a small house for rabbits, a pigeon nesting tower, a family of chickens, several free-roaming cats, the occasional hedgehog, two grunting fat pigs in a pen (one of which is blind) and – improbably – several sheep. We didn’t ask whether the sheep could be adopted. Our apartment isn’t big enough. The Tierheim has numerous full-time staff and regularly employs interns. Everyone we met was very friendly, knowledgeable and obviously put the animals’ welfare first. In a slight nod to Maoism, employees wear color-coded shirts to designate their responsibilities (the interns have to wear an ugly orange). The homepage of the Tierheim actually features videos of the animals available for adoption, although these are often out of date.
The cat we wanted ended up being already taken, so we were out of luck. However, we will certainly return in the late spring to see the new arrivals. In the meantime, we are now worried that any cat we adopt will have trouble adjusting to the less luxurious conditions of our Düsseldorf apartment.
Thanks Ed, for the lovely report. The videos of the cats are here, they’re pretty fun, even if you don’t understand what the shelter employee is saying. Here’s one for Spike the dog, from which you can learn that he’s a "fantastic guy" who has "only positive qualities!"
Now a question: is the Tierheim a true "no-kill" shelter? That’s the trend in the U.S. Is Germany — or at least Düsseldorf — already there? Yet another reason for wistful U.S. liberals to emigrate to Europe!
I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t address the social angle: the tragic differences between West German and East German animal shelters. As Matthias Plambeck showed in his magisterial Pets under the Compass and Sickle, East German dogs suffered 98% unemployment — the only positions available to them were as guide dogs or dangerous work patrolling the border. They had no right to freedom of expression and were routinely locked into small cages as punishment. Government "food" rations consisting largely of pellets of dried grain. In the ultimate humiliation, they were also forced to defecate naked, outdoors, in full view of hundreds of strangers. If you travel to the East to investigate the contemporary conditions of East German dogs, the German Joys "Solidarity Fund" will be happy to compensate your expenses…