[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
In 1963, seven years after writing a memoir about his cats and one year after publishing a book about New York’s first cats-only veterinarian, Lloyd Alexander must have foreseen a future in animal-themed nonfiction. With seven prior books to his name, none of them a blockbuster, he had, I suspect, warmed editors’ hearts as much with his love of animals as with his professionalism—which made him a suitable spokesman when the ASPCA came calling.
Apparently written to promote the ASPCA during a period of rejuvenation and expansion, Fifty Years in the Doghouse offers a brief history of the organization and the animal-welfare movement, but the real hero here is William Michael Ryan, a uniformed ASPCA special agent. Born in New York City in 1893 to a family of horse breeders, Ryan spent more than 50 years protecting animals and rescuing them from abuse, staring down gangsters and thugs while dealing with the banal cruelty of everyday people. Ryan comes across as a tough city kid, but his commitment to animals, even when the rescuee is a toad, suggests a superheroic sense of mission. “Humane work makes demands on the heart as well as on the head,” Alexander admits. “The number of people able to meet those demands is limited.”
Alexander’s publisher treats Fifty Years in the Doghouse as more than a copywriting assignment, letting the author use his familiar, gentle voice to tell Bill Ryan’s story—and letting him indulge his harmless obsession with cats. The resulting encomium is wildly unnecessary, but characteristically nice:
Economic and logistic considerations aside, it would be pleasant to believe that another factor operates in the growth of the cat’s popularity: that more people are starting to like cats purely because of the cat’s own remarkable qualities of affection combined with independence, gracefulness, intelligence—and the ability generally to stay one up on the human he deigns to live with. People with touchy egos can be driven to despair by a cat’s insistence on occasional periods of privacy and time for contemplation and meditation. The owner who prefers wildly enthusiastic tail-wagging to subtler and perhaps more intense demonstrations of love may develop the nagging impression that his cat doesn’t have a very high opinion of him.
But these are childish reactions. It may be that we are starting to enjoy cats more because we are growing a little more mature, a little wiser. In any case, cats have patience enough to wait for us to catch up to them.
Fortunately, Fifty Years in the Doghouse isn’t just another Lloyd Alexander cat book. Most of the time, the author steps aside, and Bill Ryan’s adventures speak for themselves. In short order, Ryan confronts a horse stuck under the front steps of a brownstone, a grizzly bear in Brooklyn, a Russian trade delegation’s pet wolves in a Midtown hotel, and a bull in the Madison Square Garden ladies’ room. As it turns out, Bill Ryan invented the standard cat-rescue grappling device and a sling to lift horses, and in 1963, few uniformed officers in New York could rival his barstool yarns:
When he reached the boardinghouse, Ryan saw that the policeman had not been accurate. The monkey was not a monkey, but a red ape. He was not the size of an airedale; he was much bigger. He was also in a foul temper. He squawked, huffed, grunted, bared his teeth, and Ryan could easily understand why the landlady had considered herself insulted.
“Well,” Ryan mused, “he is a big one, isn’t he?”
“Just put on a pair of gloves,” one of the officers advised, “and put him in the cage.”
Among the amusing stories of human inattention, Alexander relates examples of blatant cruelty, such as crippled ducklings, starved cows, and burned rodeo horses, pointedly, but without gratuitous detail. “Only a psychiatrist could unravel the motives of a 200-pound giant of a man who calmly beat a kitten to death with a rake,” he offers. “Or another man who stabbed his own wire-haired terrier with a pocket knife and left her to die in a trash can.” Although pathological cruelty is, he says, infrequent, “[o]f all the strange byways the Society has followed in its efforts to protect animals, the strangest has been the human mind itself.”
This realization leads to some of the better stories in Fifty Years in the Doghouse, such as the case of the fall-down drunk who denies owning a dog:
The man walked briskly to the desk. “I believe you people have my dog here.”
“What!” Ryan exploded. “At three o’clock this morning you didn’t have a dog. You didn’t even have a puppy.”
“My dog is here,” the man said firmly. “I want him back.”
“Mister,” Ryan said, “you can have any dog you want. Just tell me one thing. Why didn’t you make up your mind before? You knew damned well it wss your dog; and I knew damned well it was your dog. Why didn’t you save yourself a lot of time and trouble?”
The man drew closer to Ryan and lowered his voice. “That dog’s the best friend I got in the world. He’d give up his life for me if he had to. And I guess I’d do the same for him. But there’s something else,” he added sheepishly. “I go off the reservation sometimes. Once in a while maybe I drink too much. You got to understand this. I respect that dog and I don’t want nobody thinking he runs in bad company. So what else am I gonna do? What kind of a reputation would a dog get, hanging around an old drunk? Sure I let on he wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to embarrass him.”
Perhaps that’s the sort of kindly, aw-shucks anecdote most of us expect from Lloyd Alexander, but he knows to give the darker stories minimal adornment:
For many of the city’s anonymous millions, New York can be a lonely, unhappy town and their animals suffer in consequence.
Dear Doggie, a woman wrote to her pet chow, for three days I have waited for some kind of word from you . . .
Too emotionally disturbed to realize that animals can’t read, the woman finished her note, propped it on a table and swallowed a massive dose of sleeping pills.
A rescue squad found her barely alive and rushed her to the hospital. The dog waited patiently at the Society’s shelter throughout its owner’s long and difficult period of therapy. In time, she returned to claim her pet. She had learned something easy to overlook: that an animal’s love, like a human’s, no matter how strong it may be in reality, truly exists only when we recognize it.
Now forgotten, Fifty Years in the Doghouse got a fair amount of press in 1964. Half a century later, the book’s litany of animal anecdotes—monkeys in Manhattan! lions in the theater district!—becomes a blur, but poignant stories about forlorn pet owners, and the sort of daily heroism Michael Ryan embodied, make the book memorable, thanks to an author who puts animal-rescue tales into perspective.
“Ryan does what most humans would do—if we knew how,” Alexander concludes with a strange optimism, before clarifying: “And, also, if we were willing to take the time, to go a little out of our way.” One year away from publishing The Book of Three, Alexander turns a book about pets into a book about people, fostering a notion that would run through his writing for decades: the promise of human decency.