When I first heard about the show “Animal Precinct,” I was pretty sure that it was going to be a mushy and unintentional comedy. A documentary reality series from Animal Planet, the show appeared to be a sort of spin-off of “Cops,” only instead of having the Alphas of the constabulary pursuing the open, visible sores of the underworld, we’d get to see ASPCA officers track down people who forgot to feed their pets.
Honestly, the potential for ridiculousness was simply off the charts. I imagined some variation of a Christopher Guest movie,with the earnest officers of the ASPCA portrayed as a motley crew of the demoted and demoralized, people who couldn’t make the grade as regular cops. Self-important and physically imperfect, they’d troll about the suburbs, imposing their thin authority upon those who committed the most innocuous or benign infraction.
Well, I was wrong.
As it turns out, the show is set in New York City, where five million pets try to exist within a metropolis of eight million people. Far from being a study of a fey middle class and their love affair with pets, “Animal Precinct” is more of a portrait of how difficult it is to thrive — regardless of your species — if you’ve been relegated to the bottom tier of society.
The voice in the introductory narration has a gravelly quality, as if accustomed to hookers, whiskey, and hard times. His tone suggests that we’re about to embark on a journey through Sin City, and not watch cute puppy videos on YouTube, as perhaps we had expected.
And so, on a gunmetal gray day, we accompany officers Gankiewicz and Ryan — who look culled from central cop show casting — as they drive by low-slung buildings of little character, and across a prosaic bridge to investigate the report of emaciated dogs. Ominous music hums like a Hydro wire in the background, while the officers chat with one another in the world weary cadences of vets who hope for the best, but expect the worst.
Arriving at a housing project in the Bronx, they discover a couple of cadaverous-looking dogs in a small apartment. As the officers, who have full police authority, (including guns!) remove the animals from the premises, we catch a glimpse out the window of a barren and desolate stretch of landscape.
This is not the New York that the tourism commission would want us to see. No, on “Animal Precinct” we visit the peripheries of the city, and enter into the dreary and compromised areas where people with limited options actually live, instead of the mythologized and glittering neighborhoods of our dreams.
At any rate, the rescued dogs are then taken to the veterinary clinic where they are examined and diagnosed. The animals are utterly heartbreaking in the naked honesty of their suffering. In their faces we see an irresistible transparency, and we want more than anything to end their pain and bask in the uncomplicated purity of their love. We rejoice in the rehabilitation, cheering as they gain weight and confidence, and proudly watch as the animal, now joyous and fit, frolics upon a sunny field of green, awaiting the beautiful closure of adoption by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
However, for the show to have authentic emotional gravitas, we must also see the stories of some of the animals that don’t make it and have to be put down. Indignant, we the audience thirst for justice, hopeful that somebody will be held accountable. The ASPCA officers plod along, slowly trying to corral the bad guys, but clearly it’s a next to impossible task. In an almost limitless city, there are only 20 animal cruelty officers (when the show debuted there were only 10), and it’s obvious that they spend the vast majority of their time filling out forms that will never be read, trapped in traffic jams or suffocating in offices with poor ventilation. The satisfaction in their job is not in the punishment, but in the rescue.
There’s an irony in this, I think.
In this particular economic context, pets sometimes exist as either competition for, or as a means to acquire resources, and not as the happy extension of a loving and prosperous family. In these corners of the city, it’s a dog eat dog world.
By and large, the focus in North America is to remove the criminal element from civil society. The offenders are then placed in prison, which is clearly a toxic environment that exacerbates and amplifies whatever impulses might have created the criminal in the first place. It’s punitive, with the operative philosophy being that each individual is essentially lost to the civil world.
“Animal Precinct” illustrates the opposite. The animal, abused by circumstance and environment, is presumed to have devolved from it’s ideal self, and is removed from the pestilent conditions where it’s been formed, and then cared for — both medically and emotionally — and placed in a nurturing environment. It’s instructive how attitudes toward people and animals can be so dramatically different.
However, the focus of “Animal Precinct” is on the pathos of the animals, and not the people who preside over them.
When it comes to our pets, we have nothing but sympathy and compassion. When we look into their faces, we feel that we see a truth that transcends language. We’re all touched by the story of a starving dog and root for a happy ending.
“Animal Precinct” is kind of like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” only for pets. We get to meet animals with special needs, and then see a community rally around them, giving them the gift of a new and beautiful beginning. For the most part, the show provides closure, a happy ending for each animal and for us watching, allowing us to believe that yes, salvation is always at hand.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.