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Welcome To The World's Biggest And Best-Run Animal Shelter

Don't call it a *pound* - Berlin's Hohenschönhausen houses a huge number of formerly stray dogs, cats and other species in luxe-like quarters and remarkably attentive individual care.

"Hotel with room service"
"Hotel with room service"
Kathrin Spoerr

BERLIN - It’s summer and city streets are empty. It’s summer and the animal shelters are full. It is this way here in the German capital, and plenty of other places. It's an open secret of modern life.

Animal shelters are not places we tend to be curious about, not only because of the sadness of the lost or abandoned animals, but also because of drab and even dire conditions. And the smell, of course.

This is what I'd thought until our cat disappeared. He ended up in Hohenschönhausen — Berlin’s central shelter. When I got word, I lost no time going over there, eager not to leave my beloved pet one minute more than necessary in a place I imagined so awful. I had a surprise coming...

My cat had his own enclosure with a comfortable basket and blanket, bowl of food freshly filled – dry left, moist right, water in the middle. He had his own litter box, and there were places indoors and out where he could move around more. The floor-heated enclosures were arranged so that the animals couldn’t see each other.

It was like a cat hotel with room service.

Our cat’s care-giver was a cheerful woman in a red t-shirt and green slacks, a kind of ranger uniform all shelter employees had on. The sign on the door read "Animal Collection Point" and this lady’s job was to feed, wash and comfort Berlin’s stray animals.

She called our cat "little fellah" – she called all male cats that – and girl cats "little gal," and constantly told all her charges they were beautiful regardless of their actual looks.

One thing was clear to me: I was experiencing something that probably exists nowhere else in Germany, or the rest of the world for that matter. Googling the place later I saw it referred to as "Europe’s largest animal shelter," sometimes also "the world’s largest animal shelter."

It’s a fantastic place. It wasn’t its size that impressed me. It was its beauty and modernity (a 60-million-euro wonder of glass, concrete, light, and state-of-the-art facilities designed by Dietrich Bangert), that made you almost forget you were in a shelter except for the sound of some dogs barking, and my heavy cat in his carrier.

Once home, I kept thinking – was that really a shelter, or some kind of world expo? How does a place like that work, what did it cost, who paid for it? Some time later I went back to Hohenschönhausen, to this place that calls itself "Animal City."

I found that everything at the shelter is related to love in some way – it’s a microcosm of the love of animals so prevalent in Germany where there are 12.3 million cats and 7.6 million dogs, compared to 12.4 million children. Berliners are considered to be particularly animal-loving, and hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats live in the city, mainly in apartments. The shelter was paid for by Berlin’s Animal Protection Society, the chapter with the most members (15,000) in Germany.

Like marriage market

Still, even animal love has its limits. The sentence often heard (also at the shelter’s turn-in counter) is: "we love him to bits but we just can’t keep him anymore." Animal-loving people buy dogs or hamsters whose care later overwhelms them.

Most of them had false ideas about pet ownership, and don’t understand that an animal is work, needs to be fed and washed, needs movement, costs money. And it grows: it doesn’t stay that cute little puppy for long.

When the animal gets to this shelter it is surrounded by loving people – 140 professional animal caregivers. Some love animals so much they refuse to eat meat. If workers here share a love of animals many take a dim view of people – unsurprising since the animals here often are the victims of people.

Nearly all the workers here have a dog, and on average 90 of them come to work with their owners -- but they are not the focus of attention. Lost and abandoned pets are, currently some 1,600 of them: 670 cats, 320 dogs, 140 rodents, 170 birds. The others are exotic pets like snakes, iguanas, monkeys. There is also a horse, four pigs, a pair of ducks and some sheep.

When animals get here the first thing that happens is that they examined, vaccinated and de-wormed. All cats are neutered, but only fighting dog breeds are. Then training begins: untrained animals are not going to find new owners. Cats that won’t let themselves be petted and dogs that pee in corners may be acting according to their nature, but nobody will want them.

So cats get trained to accept being stroked, and dogs get house-trained – all by a small team of volunteers that find meaning in life by spending time with shy or traumatized animals. The cat strokers (mostly women) and the dog walkers (mostly men) often have several hours commute time to do what they do – get difficult dogs and unfriendly cats used to people.

After animals are satisfactorily trained, placement begins. Placement is the highest goal. And it’s unfair, a little like the marriage market. Dogs, cats, people, the rules are pretty much the same: it’s the pretty, clean, poised and smart ones that stand the best chance.

The next best chance at the animal shelter are the originals: one-eyed, three-legged, tail-less. And then there are the ones people don’t want: dogs that growl and bite, cats that scratch. Only a professional animal lover can see the "darling girl" in a scratcher.

Still, the shelter personnel refute the language often used – "hunting dog" is wrong, the name of the breed is the correct way to speak of the animal. "Dangerous," "aggressive" – wrong. People should be educated in common dog behaviors, and hopefully some go home with animals that are less-than-perfect on paper.

Still, the sad fact is that such animals are often here for years, and sometimes die here. That’s the case of Taylor, a black Stafford mix, who’s been here since 2006. He’s now in the shelter’s facility for canine “seniors.” The problem cat is Paula, who is afraid of people and suffers from kidney disease. She’s been here three years.

Taylor and Paula are not the sort of pet that people want as they march through the fancy glass and reinforced concrete premises with an attitude of cool social Darwinism keeping their eye peeled for the cute and cuddly.

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