Monday, May 3, 2010

On DVD: "Mine"

In our house, there's nothing that makes us leap for the remote like that awful ASPCA commercial where Sarah McLachlan sings "Angel" while all of the poor abandoned and mistreated cats and dogs look sadly into the camera. It's not that we don't care--quite the opposite. We're pet people, with two cats that we treat like our kids, and that damned commercial rips us up.

I was frankly worried that Mine, Geralyn Pezanoski's documentary about the pets left behind in Hurricane Katrina, was going to amount, psychologically, to an 80-minute version of that commercial. And, in all fairness, there is a lot of that heartbreaking footage at the beginning (the shot of the little dog scratching on the door of the bus carrying his owner away is a killer). But it's not just a sadness show; it's a thoughtful and involving look at a difficult side effect of a terrible tragedy.

You see, when the mandatory evacuation order went out, those who were pulled from their homes, those who couldn't afford to leave the city and had to go to the Superdome, and those who only had room for their families were forced to leave their pets behind. "When I heard the levee broke," remembers elderly Malvin Cavalier, "I said, 'Lord have mercy, what about Bandit?'" Once the storm subsided, and crews began to go back into the still-flooded city to survey the damage, animal advocates and volunteers rushed to rescue "the family member that hasn't been found yet."

There certainly wasn't room for all of the rescued animals in Louisiana shelters--in all, over 15,000 pets were sent to over 500 shelters around the country. But as owners searched for the pets they lost, they enormity of the task began to set in; according to one advocate, the subsequent tracking system was "a mess from day one." Many of the Katrina pets were fostered out, but many were put up for adoption, under the mistaken assumption that anyone who lost a pet in Katrina was a bad owner.

The tricky part is, some of them were. There were plenty of animals that had been mistreated and poorly cared for, and were, in a word, abandoned in the horrible storm (we see an angry rescuer spray-paint "over 100 animals were left to die at this house" on the car in the home's driveway). But some of them were good people who did the best they could in that moment, only to find their beloved pets long gone. We meet some of those owners, and follow them on their hunt, as they find that lack of resources and lack of money results in a lack of pet.

The ownership issues and emotional stakes are surprisingly complex; when Jesse Pullins is told by the adopting shelter that his dog J.J.'s new owners have presumably grown attached to their pet, he replies emphatically, "I'm not attached to him. He's mine." But many of these dogs have new families who do, in fact, love them and have cared for them--and, in the case of a lawsuit brought against a rescue organization in Texas, there is certainly evidence that the dog in question might be in a much better home.

Pezanoski takes great pains to fairly portray all sides, which is admirable. The film is a little thin in spots, but to its credit, it doesn't take cheap shots at any of the parties involved in those doggy custody battles--in fact, by the time it arrives at its affecting concluding passages, we've realized that Mine isn't so much about Katrina as it is about our love for our animal companions. In all honesty , it got to me--I watched it with our cat Keaton curled up next to me on the couch, and as easy as it might be to chuckle smugly at Victor's attachment to little "Max," I can't say that I'd respond any differently if we somehow lost our little guys. So those closing scenes are genuinely moving, without resorting to easy sentiment--if anything, we're touched by the goodness of kind people like Ellen and Ron or Tiffany and Jeremy, who understand that attachment well enough to do the right thing. In fact, just about everyone in Mine is trying to do the right thing, so we're treated to some real happy endings... and some that are more complicated than that.

"Mine" arrives tomorrow on DVD.

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