One Hundred Dogs & Counting – One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and A Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues
–Book Review by Courtney Wennerstrom, aapp Content Director
“Feeling something—happiness, sadness, fear, joy, anything—makes us human; it propels us from spectator to participant in our world. I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to save dogs, and I never for a second imagined that wouldn’t require pain on my part. The pain made me stronger and it only deepened my commitment to this mission”. –Cara Sue Achterberg, “One Hundred Dogs & Counting”
I have always believed our highest purpose on this planet is to transmute pain into beauty–it’s a kind of alchemical process in which we actively turn anguish into insight, connection, and intimacy–and ideally, into policies, ideologies, and tools we can use to make the world a kinder, lovelier place. In this philosophy and spirit of resilience and meaning-making, Cara Sue Achterberg is clearly my soulmate. Willing to travel as far as necessary, and to stare into the abyss of the dark side of animal rescue, she went–undaunted and unflinching–on a quest to find out why, despite living “in a country as rich and wasteful and sentimental and animal-loving as ours,” thousands of adoptable companion animals are still being held inhumanely only to be killed en masse, every single day across the United States. Ultimately, her razor-sharp focus and willingness to do everything in her power to save the countless dogs who have been abandoned, overlooked, and ultimately lost, to systemic neglect and abject cruelty, endear me to her, as I suspect they will for anyone who reads her.
One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey into the Heart of Sheltering and Rescue (2020) is an important book for all of us who care deeply about the health and safety of not just our own pets, but of ALL dogs–especially those whose lives are in grave danger through absolutely no fault of their own. Unsurprisingly, it is an even more important book for those dogs. As I write, pets in the South (and many other areas of the country, for that matter) are waiting–often terrified and lying on a concrete floor–for a miracle that may never come.
What begins as a memoir about her experiences fostering for Operation Paws for Homes (OPH)–replete with hilarious anecdotes and honest descriptions about the emotional and material messiness of raising and adopting out adult dogs and litter and after litter of puppies–quickly becomes an investigative project to find out why so many pets need help in the first place. Because no matter how many dogs Achterberg and her very accommodating family took into their home, loved, nursed through illness and injury, and healed, both physically and psychically–and then selflessly gave over to an adoptive family–OPH always immediately sent out a new plea, only for the cycle to start again. Like all good writers, Achterberg is fearlessly inquisitive. So when she realized that fostering dog after dog was a Sisyphean task akin to the very definition of madness itself, she redirected her focus: “I have no patience for doing the same thing over and over to no effect. If fostering one hundred dogs in our home hadn’t made a dent in the problem, then why were we even bothering?”
Answering that question takes her, along with her husband, son, friends, fellow rescuers, and now her readers, to the underbelly of the South–where many organizations like OPH “pull” dogs and transport them to other areas of the country in a frantic attempt to save their lives. If you are unfamiliar with this process, rescues must first find foster families so they have somewhere to place the animals they pull. They then pay for their transportation and medical care, including spay and neuter surgeries, and do the marketing and/or host adoption events to help find those pets loving homes. Foster families across our country–who pick dogs up off of trucks that have driven all night carrying their exhausted, precious cargo–know they are likely one of the few humans standing between those dogs and an untimely death. Having fostered dozens of dogs myself, I appreciate that Achterberg is a voice not only for dogs in danger, but for those of us who welcome dogs into our homes.
During several road trips from her farm in Pennsylvania to Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, Achterberg and her crew visit over 30 municipal and private shelters and rescues, ranging from progressive, “no-kill” shelters to makeshift facilities located inside of landfills, where beautiful dogs, tails wagging and ready for kisses, sit in their own urine and feces, waiting for love. As we learn from this book, there are still far too many places in the US where pets are quite literally considered trash. Pets are dying by the thousands for a myriad of reasons: zero or poor government funding; a lack of collaboration and imagination; bureaucratic inefficiencies; a dearth of spay/neuter and other basic medical services; and backwards cultural attitudes that refuse to recognize animals as sentient beings worthy of investment or protection (queue the many “it’s just a dog” excuses we have all heard at least once in our lives). All of these are patently unacceptable, and it is going to take all of us to change both the narrative and the course of this history.
In this sense, the title of Achterberg’s memoir is misleading: this is less a story about one woman, and more a tale of how one woman transformed her passion for saving dogs into a larger movement, compelling everyone around her, even her non-dog-people friends, to join her cause. She tells the stories of individual dogs she meets, as well as those of the unsung heroes in the trenches, who work endlessly in complete chaos, at all hours of the day and night, and who take especially sick or traumatized animals into their own homes to rest, usually without any pay for themselves or funding for the animals, other than sparse donations. Achterberg gives these compassionate souls adorable titles: one woman is the “Rescue Wizard of Tennessee,” while another man is the ”shepherd who watches over his lambs”. I understand why she exalts them. After all, they are the light in an otherwise dark tragedy of human ignorance, and help to give her (and her readers by proxy) a sense that we really do have the power to make things so much better for animals.
As a writer and a human being, Achterberg’s compassion, self-awareness, proclivity for hope, and guileless humor make the harsh realities she illuminates more bearable. But they also belie her admirable ferocity. Make no mistake: while Achterberg is extremely humble, and occasionally comedically self-deprecating, she is a life-saving force to be reckoned with. To be clear, it takes someone extremely brave and tenacious to confront these horrors, and then to speak her truth, despite the fact that so many people find that truth damn-near impossible to believe. As an animal welfare professional, who has visited and worked with shelters and rescues across the United States, including many that Cara discusses in the book, I knew all too well where her narrative was heading from the first page. This knowledge did not make it easy to examine this dire situation again, which is exactly the point: to sugarcoat any part of what is happening does a terrible disservice to the animals who need us. We. Must. Act.
Still, this book is wildly hopeful and full of happy-endings. It allows you to get to know Cara as a wife, mother, author (she is actually on a book tour during this journey!), and friend, and is highly educational and relatable. Achterberg beautifully articulates the gripping urgency of this situation, which is difficult to reconcile with the swimming-in-molasses slowness of change. But I want her to know that we are here and we are listening. And more than that, I want her to know that she has gained many new devotees.
Genre: Part memoir, part investigative journalism, part political manifesto, all a strong call-to- action.
Who should read this book: Anyone who is interested in the challenges animal welfare professionals face in rescuing pets. Anyone who wants to understand why pets are dying, and lend their talents and resources to ensure that every good dog has a chance to find their family.
Who should not read this book: Anyone who really cannot stand to think about animal suffering. If this is you, please skip directly to the donation page below and give what you can.
The Takeaway: Dogs in the rural South are suffering and dying senselessly, and we can and must do something to save them.
Cara Achterberg is an author and advocate who co-founded, Who Will Let the Dogs Out to raise awareness and resources for shelter dogs and the people who fight for them. For more information, visit CaraWrites.com. If you would like to donate directly to her cause, please visit https://ophrescue.org/donate and be sure to designate your gift to “’Who Will Let the Dogs Out’.