About five years ago, my good friend Joe introduced me to his good friend, the writer Joy Nicholson. I had never met anyone like Joy; never met anyone close.
I was immediately smitten and Joe, after noticing how smitten I was, pulled me aside to follow his introduction with a strong warning.
“Great writer,” he said, “amazing woman, but she’s crazy.”
“She saves dogs.”
When I shrugged my shoulders and told him I didn’t understand, he clarified: “Animal rescue—it’s not a cause, it’s a cult.”
Yet I was in love and curious and really, I became a journalist for a reason. Even under normal circumstances, it doesn’t take me much to follow an idea right off the edge of the world. So I decided to dig deeper.
What I quickly discovered is that animal rescue isn’t a cult—it’s actually one of the largest movements in America. Of the 78 million dogs in the U.S., somewhere between 20 and 25 percent have been rescued from shelters. Twenty million Americans have taken part in a dog rescue.
And dogs are just the beginning. The scope of this country’s animal rescue movement extends from bald eagles through mountain lions through crayfish, with hundreds of stops in between. When you add it all together, Americans now spend 2.5 billion dollars a year on animal sheltering and advocacy. This means that if animal rescue is a cult it’s one of the largest and best-funded cults in history.
But here’s the more curious fact—no one really knows why.
Altruism, the act of helping another, has been a long-standing puzzle. Debates about where altruism comes from and why it exists pre-date the Greeks, but after Darwin published The Origin of Species, scientists began to enter the fray.
In the 1970s, Richard Dawkins published his legendary The Selfish Gene and seemed to settle the issue. Dawkin’s argued that altruism is really selfishness in disguise: that we help those who help us pass along our genes. And while there is still some debate, that’s about where we stand today. Unfortunately, the act of helping an animal—what’s technically called cross-species altruism—remains a mystery for one simple reason: It doesn’t matter what I do for an animal, none of it is going to help me pass along my genes.
A giant movement and a scientific puzzle and both wrapped into one. Curiosity became obsession and for this and, well, many other reasons, about a year after I met Joy, when she asked me if I was interested in helping her scale up her dog rescue operation, I jumped at the chance. We bought a tiny farm in the middle of nowhere and founded Rancho de Chihuahua—a special needs dog sanctuary.
So what does the cult and culture of dog rescue look like from the inside out? Well, the longer answer is essentially my new book: A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life. But the short answer will be some of what I’m talking about on November 17th at the Book Stall in Winnetka (7 p.m.), or November 18th at the main branch of the downtown Chicago Public Library (400 State Street, 6 p.m.).
Want to help a rescue organization? Consider these two local operations: