By Leslie Centeno, 17, Bishop Conaty—Our Lady of Loretto HS
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Leslie loves her dog Coco, who she adopted from an animal shelter.
Photo by Evelyn Centeno (Leslie’s mom)

It bothers me to go to an animal shelter, knowing that many of the dogs and cats are going to die. I can’t stand it because I love animals, especially dogs. They’re the ones smiling at me when I come home from school and their fur makes a great tissue whenever I cry. Momar, my first dog, was my best friend.

When I recently began researching to learn more about euthanasia (which is when animals are killed by injecting them with drugs), my jaw dropped. About 3 to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year in the United States because of overcrowding in animal shelters, according to the Humane Society. That’s 450 dogs and cats every hour. I was so angry, yet I felt helpless because I couldn’t do anything. But after learning more, I’m hopeful that fewer animals will have to die.

When I was younger, I would spend hours outdoors with Momar, a German shepherd and golden retriever mix. I’d tell him all my secrets while feeding him Doritos. Even if he couldn’t talk back, I believed the only barrier between us was our language. When he got lost when I was 9, my parents and I searched our local animal shelter a few times, but we never found him. It killed me to lose Momar. It also bothered me to go to the shelter because I knew that the dogs I was petting could get killed if they weren’t adopted or found by their owners.

Growing up, I would squeal whenever I saw a stray because I felt sorry for them, worried they’d get run over or starve to death. Whenever I saw a stray dog walk past my home, I’d run to the kitchen and grab cookies, Doritos, chicken drumsticks or anything I could find for it. I still feed stray dogs whenever I see them.

Four years ago I went to the Baldwin Park animal shelter to adopt a Samoyed, which is a large, white snow dog with perky ears, a cherry-shaped black nose and a trademark smile. When I arrived at the shelter, noisy barks echoed through the sliding doors and a musky animal smell wrinkled my nose. A worker at the front desk told me the Samoyed was in kennel 30. My heart sank as I observed the dozens of dogs as I walked down the hallway. They had long faces and wide eyes. It seemed they knew their probable fate—death. My eyes watered. I blamed myself that they’d be left behind because I could take only one.

I got to kennel 30 and the Samoyed turned out to be a mutt. Then my cousin, Joanne, slapped my arm and said, “Leslie! Look at this dog! It’s so cute!” She pointed to the dog next to the mutt. The paper outside its kennel read, “Female Stray 5 Yrs.” She was too brown—brown nose, brown eyes, thick orangey-brown fur, and a faded, nappy behind. But she was the only dog who showed interest in me. She stuck her body on the fence to be pet and kept tapping me with her paw. I squeezed my hand through a hole in the fence and stroked her gently. I knew I had to adopt her.

On the way home, I named her Coco and that night brought her in my room for bedtime. Later that evening I felt a nudge and blurrily stared at the clock—3 a.m. It was Coco and she kept tapping me and going to the door—she wanted to go outside to pee. I couldn’t believe how clever she was. I had never known there were well-trained dogs like her in shelters.

After I got Coco, I asked my friends if they had been to an animal shelter, but they all said no. “It’s too sad.” I felt like dragging them to one, but I knew that they could care less. Only 16 percent of pet owners adopt from shelters, according to Spay/USA. I believe it’s because people think four-digit-priced dogs equal better pets. That’s total crap. Coco was less than $50 (shots and spaying included) and she always gets compliments when I walk her!

Unwanted animals have 52 days to live

I wanted to know more about animal shelters so I interviewed Ed Boks, the general manager of LA Animal Services, which runs shelters in Los Angeles.

Boks said unclaimed animals are held for 45 days. If no one adopts them, they go on “red alert” for seven days. Six thousand a year are saved by rescue organizations but the rest are killed. In the past year more than 46,000 animals entered Los Angeles shelters, according to Boks’s blog. Of those, 28 percent of the dogs and 57 percent of the cats were euthanized.

Boks said that each month, fewer animals are getting killed because owners are being more responsible by licensing their pets so they have proper identification and spaying or neutering them. In August 2,210 dogs and cats were euthanized, which was 25 percent less than August 2006. But he said that as long as animals are being killed, there’s still a problem.

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times this summer about a bill that would require Californians to spay or neuter their pets. However, the bill was put off because breeders and guide-dog owners objected, saying it would make it harder for them to do their jobs. I was pissed off. While the bill is pending, hundreds of puppies and kittens will wind up in shelters! Politicians need to pass the bill.

Talking to Boks and reading his blog—he was so positive—and learning about the bill, makes me more hopeful. I also found out there are ways to help improve the lives of animals in shelters, like volunteering at a shelter. I signed up to be a dog walker at an animal shelter. In every row of kennels I found a dog I wanted. I encourage everyone to visit a shelter and adopt a new companion. I think dogs from shelters are misunderstood. They’re even more loveable than store-bought dogs. If you buy a dog from a store you’re just supporting puppy mills, but by adopting a dog from a shelter, you’re saving a life.

How teens can help

• Adopt a pet from an animal shelter.
• Volunteer at an animal shelter walking and grooming the animals.
• Have your dog or cat implanted with a microchip, which is a device that shelters scan to get the pet owner’s information and reunite the pet with their owners. Call your vet or local animal shelter for more information.
• Pass out flyers from to inform others about the overpopulation issue.