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Constructing Personal Identity in Animal Shelters

After the publication of his latest book, Just a Dog, Northeastern University sociology/anthropology professor Arnold Arluke wrote this essay for Animal Sheltering. Building on research he conducted for the book, Arluke explores the social environments of shelters and the dynamics behind employees’ personal philosophies. In his analysis, he cites his own extensive interviews with workers in shelters of varying policies; his research also includes an examination of many years’ worth of magazine articles and other written material.

The author of eight books and more than 70 articles, Arluke is a senior scholar at the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy. But as a sociologist, Arluke looks not at the effects of cruelty on animals but at its effects on the humans who commit it, combat it, or are exposed to it in some other way. How does their understanding of cruelty affect their own sense of identity? The answer to that question is increasingly complicated in the sheltering world, where people in both open-admission and no-kill facilities often spar over differing euthanasia policies, sometimes even leveling charges of cruelty against one another. Arluke outlines the history of what lies behind those charges, and in the process his work illuminates the enormous burdens placed on workers in all shelters who struggle to help as many animals as they can every day.

For the last three decades, the no-kill movement has had major and controversial effects on the programs and policies of shelters nationwide. It has also affected the way shelter workers themselves understand their work and their place in the animal protection community. It is this effect that I hoped to grasp when I began speaking with shelter workers about their experiences.

From a sociological perspective, becoming a shelter worker involves much more than learning how to care for animals. It involves a complicated process of fashioning an occupational identity within the sometimes conflicted community of animal sheltering. This complication is apparent in no-kill workers’ attempts to separate their identity from that of traditional open-admission shelter workers.

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